Aliette de Bodard writes speculative fiction: her short stories have garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. She is the author of The House of Shattered Wings, a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war. She lives in Paris.
Aliette kindly spoke to Michelle Herbert in August 2015.
I really enjoyed reading The House of Shattered Wings, when you were initially putting the story together, did you know you wanted to base your book in Paris or was this incidental to the events in the book?
I very much started this as a fantasy set in Paris - it was originally an urban fantasy with dynasties of magicians, except I could never quite get it off the ground and I ended up going for the devastated, post-magical-apocalypse feel. For me, it made sense to set the story there, since I've lived in or around the city for decades now - and it also was very useful to simply walk to places I needed to research!
The book really focuses on different religions as well as magic; did you find it challenging to show magic in different belief structures realistically?
I didn't really have that feeling while writing - for me, religion and a belief system have always been tied to magic and the supernatural, and I tend to go for magic systems derived from said beliefs (there are other ways to build up a magic system, of course! It's just the one that appeals to me most). I was also pretty familiar with both the main ones by dint of personal or familial connections - a lot of the Vietnamese magic is me putting together stories told by my ba ngoai (maternal grandmother) and giving them leave to exist even in a very changed environment.
There are a lot of different characters to follow through THOSW. Which was the most fun to write and why?
Actually, the funniest was Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn. He's the contrary element - the one you can rely on to make the cutting and sarcastic comments (among many other things), and to throw a spanner in anything the characters might have ongoing. It's not an antagonist role, per se, but certainly a big interference and a source of much frustration (but it was fun for me the writer!).
The Houses have an interesting structure with the Fallen and their dependents. Did the Houses start as a way to protect newly Fallen or for control?
Both, I think. The stated motivation was to protect newly Fallen, but of course protecting Fallen (who have the largest magical powers) is nearly equivalent to setting up your own power structure. I think something like that must have happened, and slowly calcified until we reach the fragile equilibrium of "magical terror" that's in the novel.
Morningstar is a very interesting character, equal parts cruel and enquiring. If you could, would you make him the main character of his own story?
I'm not sure I would. Like Asmodeus, he's one of those side characters who does very well when dropped into someone else's storyline, but who partly works because you're not privy to his thoughts - because there's always something dark and mysterious about him that makes him alluring and repulsive in equal parts. I don't think that effect could be pulled off with him in his own story.
Do you have plans to continue writing in this world? If so would it be a sequel or a companion novel set in another part of the world?
I'm contracted for another novel set in the same world, which is probably going to be a sequel with at least some of the same characters and what happens to them (it's still being written so am not too sure yet!). Tentatively, it's going to focus on the House of Hawthorn, just as this one was focused on the House of Silverspires.
Do you find it easier to write novels or short stories?
Oh, trick question. I like both, but they're very different things. With short stories I struggle to keep them short, because I naturally gravitate towards complex world building, fleshed-out characters and a plot with twists, all of which taken together make it really hard to keep the darn thing short! With novels it's more an inability to hold the entire shape of the thing in my head: when I'm writing one, it's not easy to take a step back and focus on structure and pacing and where things need to happen and why.
What book would you say inspired you to become a writer?
Mostly? All the books I read as a child - I think, like many writers, I write what I would like to read (it's a very selfish business sometimes :p). I devoured everything from Jules Verne to Agatha Christie to Roger Zelazny to Vietnamese fairy tales, and a bit of all of that goes into my fiction and hopefully comes out appealing to people.
What one question would you like to answer that you have been never asked?
About this book, I've never been asked whether Philippe's experience of being taken from his home in Vietnam and dragged to Paris to fight someone else's wars was coming from - I didn't make it up, though I wish I had! A lot of Vietnamese were conscripted during WWII and set to making ammunition and other stuff for the war effort, and they got repatriated long after the war had ended (5 years during which they basically performed indentured work). It's not something we talk about a lot, but it infuriated me so much I had to put it in the book.
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Paris in the aftermath of the Great Magicians War. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black, thick with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens retain their irrepressible appetite for novelty and distraction, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over France's once grand capital. House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, now lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls. Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, an alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires' salvation; or the architects of its last, irreversible fall...
"This book is wreathed in mythology, magic and mysticism and it is such a compelling read that maybe the book itself is magic. The twist on angels being power hungry was also really interesting, especially as the book never goes into why they have Fallen. I liked how the different kinds of magic were not complementary or even understood by the different practitioners. The House of Shattered Wings is a fantastic book full of sacrifice, vengeance and justice."
As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the great Houses of Paris, ruled by fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital. House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Phillippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal - to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic might be more than he can bear. In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater dragon kingdom - and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear... As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength - or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.
"The House of Binding Thorns is a book about diplomacy and hidden truths, with deals that benefit one side more than the other and old grudges resurfacing. There are so many factions to watch out for, with allies becoming enemies and vice versa. This is also a book full of diversity and characters whose strength is not always in the magic they possess. It was interesting to see a community living outside of the House system, who may not be thriving but continue to build and support one another. Aliette de Bodard has created a fascinating world with many different characters whose lives all interlock, all heading to something different from what was there before."
There are many questions about power and how it not only corrupts but whether it is worth having in the first place. There are also limitations to power, as people can change and grow, but power doesn’t always give you the chance to do this, and it may not be what you expected. There are also lessons to be learnt about letting go of the past and forgiving yourself for things you were not able to control. The novel has a good satisfactory ending where changes have to be made and allowed to grow for a better world to happen.