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As you should all be aware by now, from my review on Monday of The House of Binding Thorns among other intimations, I am incredibly fond of Aliette de Bodard, both as an amazing human being and as an incredibly good writer; before The House of Shattered Wings, she provided a blog post here on the topic of diversity and gender roles in her Fallen Paris setting and her writing more broadly, which I greatly enjoyed. So when she asked if anyone would like to host a post on the topic of motherhood in fiction, and further intimated that the stunningly excellent artist Likhain had provided an illustration for the piece, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It’s a brilliant essay, and I am so glad to have the honour to share it with you:
Horrific pregnancies and dead mothers: motherhood in fiction and how I learnt to love my pregnant character
You know where you stand with mothers in fiction and media.
They die in childbirth, they die of illnesses, they’re dead long before the story starts, allowing the main character perhaps a modicum of angst, perhaps a touching memory of safety–allowing for danger and conflict, for which it would seem that peculiar loss of safety is a prerequisite. And it’s mothers specifically–fathers tend to be a source of interrelational conflict, because they tend to have those fascinating jobs and lives–because they have an existence outside their children, whereas mothers’ jobs seem to stop somewhere between giving birth and raising their kids (a job that incidentally is devalued as being natural and easily accomplished when it’s anything but!)
Laura’s mother and mother-figure Gabriela both die in Logan, Peter Quill’s/Star-lord’s mother likewise in Guardians of the Galaxy. The mothers in Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are both dead before or shortly after the story starts. Queen Amidala dies in childbirth at the end of Star Wars III. And that’s just the first few examples I could think of, off the top of my head!
And, if mothers have a rough time, pregnant women have it even worse. Births in SFF tend to be monstrous or holy. Ripley in Alien incubates an alien that will erupt out of her body and kill her. Melisandre in Game of Thrones gives birth to a horrific demon. Pregnancy is body horror, a twisted, dreadful experience exploited for viewers kicks.
At the other end of the spectrum, pregnancies can be sacred: necessary for the accomplishment of prophecies, the only hope of devastated worlds and oppressed people: the vampire Darla gives birth to Connor in Angel, an impossibility fated to kill a powerful demon; Kee is the only pregnant woman in the world in the movie version of Children of Men, the symbol of hope for mankind. Someone, after all, has to carry the chosen one, but Heaven forbid they should actually matter. They’re a vessel whose own bodies don’t belong to them, a thing to be worshipped and protected; an abstraction on the way to some more important story (Darla in Angel literally kills herself to give birth).
When I started writing my novel, The House of Binding Thorns, I was onto my second pregnancy, and beyond annoyed.
The book is set in an alternate Gothic turn-of-the-century Paris, a city devastated by a war between magical factions and where the powerless struggle to survive amidst political and magical intrigue. I wanted one of the main characters (Françoise, a queer Vietnamese/Annamite who is the lover of Berith, a Fallen angel, and expecting her child) to be pregnant, because pregnancy is an important part of life for some of us–and because I wanted to tackle families and motherhood in this book.
It turned out to be a hard balancing act. I wanted the pregnancy to be dangerous, because it was disingenuous not to acknowledge childbirth as a major cause of trauma and death for women; and I wanted it to be magical because it was a dark fantasy book–and I had to do all this without turning it into body horror or chosen one narrations!
It turned out the trickiest one to avoid was the sacred pregnancy. I was simultaneously pregnant while writing the book (a very weird experience but one that allowed me to be reasonably confident I was describing symptoms and mindset of the character reasonably accurately), and it was my second pregnancy, so body horror was very far from my thoughts. Though I did wait until after I gave birth to research particular life threatening complications: it turns out that in a 19th Century setting without antibiotics or healing magic the main difficulty is finding pregnancy/birth complications that don’t actually kill the character!
The messiah aspect of the pregnancy was harder to avoid: because of the unusual family structure (not so much the queerness, which is par for the course in the universe, but the Fallen/mortal lover dynamic which is very unusual in-universe) it was rare and therefore precious, and it’s a short step from there to “awe-inspiring”, especially in a post-apocalyptic city of broken streets and destroyed monuments, where it takes on the heft of hope without any deliberation or effort on my part.
I tried to avoid that by making it matter to the characters, so that neither Françoise nor Berith were reduced to mothers of the special child, and by making them, not the child, be the target of political intrigue. In fact, at one point a character explicitly says that the child is not a problem, because “who would teach (them) vengeance?”
Berith and Françoise have to navigate the tricky waters of expectant parenthood and adjust to becoming parents while having their own lives and their own communities. And I’ll only mildly spoil the story by saying that they both survive–that they’re not fridged as some sort of sacrifice for their child’s survival (which is doubly significant as they’re queer in a stable relationship, and we all know how these ones have a tendency to end in media: badly). They can have all the time to discover that the trickiest thing may not be carrying the child to term or giving their life for them, but rather the long, long years of actually raising said child.
But that’s a story for another day!
Art by the truly fantastic Likhain, aka Mia Sereno, whose work you really ought to check out either by clicking through earlier in this sentence or on the image itself. Seriously, support an amazing artist!
Now for the giveaway! I’ve got two copies of the beautiful Gollancz mass-market paperback edition of House of Shattered Wings to give away to two lucky winners, so enter here…
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. Philippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic may 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.
Back in 2015, I reviewed House of Shattered Wings, Aliette de Bodard’s introduction to the world of a Paris broken by magical warfare and the emergence of the Fallen. de Bodard has returned to that world two years later with The House of Binding Thorns; does it live up to the high bar of its predecessor?
Whereas House of Shattered Wings had a strong focus on Silverspires, House of Binding Thorns shifts focus to a dual one; on Silverspires’ rival, Hawthorn, who we only saw as dark antagonists in House of Shattered Wings, and on the dragon kingdom in the Seine, which was only a bit part before. This shift in focus means de Bodard does a lot of new of worldbuilding; each place she shows us has such a sense of rootedness and geographical specificity that it really feels inhabited, lived in, aged and fallen. The whole world’s decrepitude takes different forms; de Bodard isn’t content to just let Paris fall, but it has to fall in ways that make sense for the part of Paris it is – whether rusted, or faded grandeur, or the mold of the dragon kingdom, each one evokes a past golden age as well as showing us the gaps between the aspirations of characters and the realities of their situations. Places are as much characters as the people are.
That only works because House of Binding Thorns is full of very human people, from the returning Philippe and Madeleine to the expanded role of Asmodeus, and the new characters – the dragon prince spying on Hawthorn, Thuan; the Annamite Houseless Françoise and her Fallen lover Berith. de Bodard has four protagonists and three major viewpoints in the novel, an impressive number to handle (Asmodeus is a protagonist but never a viewpoint); but she does it deftly and with a clear demarcation of shifts in viewpoint, as much in writing style as in physical markers of line breaks. The narrative control here is much stronger than in House of Shattered Wings, and the occasional messiness that plagued the first book is definitely cleared up here for a more streamlined reading experience.
That applies to the plot too; The House of Binding Thorns is a deeply political novel with tangled intrigues moving into and through each other. The factions within Hawthorn, and within the dragon kingdoms, as well as outside groups, all of whom have different agendas and who can be at times unfortunately unwilling to recognise that there might be more factions at play than they initially assumed, each have their own plans that intersect in ways that de Bodard keeps a very tight control of. Everything that happens here has had its trail laid earlier, to a greater or lesser extent, and things refer backwards and forwards in interesting ways; de Bodard lays strands of plot to the side temporarily only to pick them up again later, but in a very deliberate way that really builds the novel.
Thematically, The House of Binding Thorns is an expansion on the ideas of House of Shattered Wings, and an interesting one; it looks at power, and different kinds of approaches to it; it looks at what being a part of something bigger than oneself can mean; it looks at conceptions of sacrifice, and what one might be willing to sacrifice; and in Madeleine’s sections, it looks at addiction and PTSD with an intelligent and sympathetic eye, without cliche. de Bodard never lets theme overtake story, so The House of Binding Thorns moves at a good pace; it isn’t a fast novel, but it’s not sprawling either, more a kind of stately procession that turns into a bit of a brawl at the close, but intentionally and in a very controlled and clear way.
House of Binding Thorns is a grand and striking expansion upon the world of the Dominion of the Fallen, and a powerful novel from de Bodard, who really brings her full talents to bear on every aspect of the book. A distinct level up from someone who was already a master.
DISCLOSURE: Aliette is a good friend, who I’ve hosted here for guest spots in the past and will again; and I purchased a Tuckerisation in the novel for my partner.
If you found this review useful, or if you’d like to help choose what I review next month, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.
House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, 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. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…
This isn’t going to be what passes as a normal review on this blog. It’s impossible for me to be objective about this book. I first read House of Shattered Wings when it was three chapters and a proposal Aliette was planning on sending her agent, and then again when it was a draft for her agent to send out to publishers; I’ve been really looking forward to seeing how it has changed since then, so when Gollancz offered me an ARC, I jumped on the offer.
House of Shattered Wings is so good, y’all. So very incredibly good. This book takes in class systems, the immigrant experience, colonialism, theological discussion, friendship, personal obligation and debt, the way we are entrenched in and become ensnared by the societies we live in no matter how toxic they are, the limits of magic, the problems of power, and so much more, in the setting of a shattered 19th century Paris, crushed by magical war between fallen angels. And it’s more exciting than that makes it sound; this isn’t a thesis or a piece of fiction shaped around characters spouting off de Bodard’s political manifesto, it’s just that de Bodard has, as usual, the ambition to not back down from interrogating a(nother) Big Idea in the same novel, because it fits.
After all, in a novel populated by fallen angels but one of whose protagonists is an exiled Annamite (that is, Vietnamese) Immortal conscripted into a French war, in a novel where one of the protagonists is a drug-abusing mortal preserving magic for her House, in a novel one of whose protagonists is a Fallen trying to find her place in the world having already been told what her place in the House is, big, complex, crunchy ideas of race, identity, belonging, culture, power and society are inevitably going to come up; and in a world with much smaller political bodies, the cut-throat ruthlessness of those bodies and their leaders is going to be much closer to the surface. The House of Shattered Wings has an awful lot going on, from introducing us to this shattered Paris with its houses, magic, gangs, and more, through the complex and increasingly dark plot; but all really rests on the strength of the protagonists de Bodard gives her audience, and in this novel, that strength is immense.
We have two main protagonists and a third viewpoint character, each of whom has a different voice (my ARC had a flaw, in that sections weren’t clearly demarcated. The different voices of the protagonists actually meant they didn’t need to be); each of whom has different experiences and driving forces behind them; each of whom is wonderfully distinct. Two of them are women – Selene isn’t a protagonist but, as head of House Silverspires and heir of Morningstar, she’s a key figure to the book, and the tensions between the ruthlessness of a head of House and the loving woman who needs her ex-addict partner Emmanuelle are at times terrible to behold. Madeleine, meanwhile, is the alchemist of House Silverspires having formerly been a member of House Hawthorn, driven from there under terrible circumstances and seeking refuge in angel essense; de Bodard’s portrayal of both the trauma and the addiction are fantastic and darkly honest, including the self-justification for things Madeleine knows she shouldn’t do and the portrayal of a self-destructive character. Philippe has a different kind of past; an idealised, idyllic image of an Annam that no longer exists, which he was torn from by Fallen to fight in their wars. The hatred of the Houses that comes from that experience is a huge force in his character, but so is an idea of debt and honour; it’s a fantastic balance and watching de Bodard portray his internal struggles between them is amazing. The final key figure, who has no viewpoint, is at the same time most and least interesting; newly Fallen at the start of House of Shattered Wings, mutilated by Philippe for the magic that suffuses her body, Isabelle is the catalyst for an awful lot of the action, and the strange mix of naivete and cynicism that is commented on by other characters is fascinating, especially as the balance between them changes across the book.
House of Shattered Wings is a novel all about impossible choices, and the consequences of those choices; it’s about history not being dead, it’s about home as a memory as much as a physical location, it’s about ideals and their embodiments and how there is always a gap between those things, it’s about power. De Bodard manages to get all of those things into the plot, without having many subplots splitting off; there are smaller moments, but essentially, the whole narrative force of the book, every characters’ different trajectories and personal journeys and plots, are all impelling the book to its dark, heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching conclusion. That’s part of what makes House of Shattered Wings so effective: everything comes together for a finale that involves everyone having to make awful decisions, impossible decisions – and tragedy striking despite goodness, bad things happening despite the reader crying out for them not to, and those consequences not always (not often, not EVER) falling on those who most deserve them. It’s a plot that ought to be really hard to carry off; it doesn’t start until part way through the book but is already being built towards from page one, whose resolution and revelation come in drips before the explosive, soul-hurting climax which only comes after the plot has effectively been resolved.
As a first draft, The House of Shattered Wings did all of these things, but a couple of them – especially that impossible, awful, brilliant, perfect ending – messily. As a final product, with the help of Gillian Redfearn and Jessica Wade (of Gollancz and Roc respectively)? Aliette de Bodard has written an absolute masterpiece whose sequel cannot come soon enough.
House of Shattered Wings comes out from Gollancz in the UK & Roc in the US on August 20th.
DoI: …that whole first paragraph, okay?