The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel, The House of Shattered Wings. Binding Thorns (review copy from Gollancz) picks up immediately after the cataclysmic events of Shattered Wings.
In de Bodard’s post-apocalyptic Paris, wealthy Houses are ruled by the Fallen, angels ejected from Heaven, but with no memory of why they were cast out, or their former lives. The major houses provide a measure of protection for them, and a way of using their magical talents. But as Shattered Wings showed, there are dark forces at play seeking to undermine the House structures.
But Binding Thorns takes a different tack to its predecessor, focusing on the much story of a strategic alliance House Hawthorn is seeking to make with the Annamite dragon kingdom under the Seine. The existence of the dragons is known to very few and the product of France’s colonial past. Paris has a substantial Annamite minority, living on the margins of society, many of them migrants or the descendants of migrants unable to return home. It is natural that they would have brought their beliefs and supernatural beings to their new home.
It’s always exciting to find a work of speculative fiction that deals with post-colonialism, let alone one that does it so well. As de Bodard makes clear in her Afterword, this is a novel that draws on the experience of colonial control through things like the Opium Wars. Except the drug of choice that is slowly destroying the Paris dragon kingdom is angel essence, not opium. And just like China, the trade in angel essence is a deliberate attempt to weaken and undermine the kingdom, making it ripe for a takeover. The dissonance between Fallen and Annamite culture is portrayed incredibly well throughout the novel, whether through the starkest incompatibilities in the two magic systems, or the subtleties of cultural constructs.
The chance to explore another House is an exciting one. House Hawthorn is an interesting contrast to Silverspires in the first novel. We learn much more about its enigmatic leader Asmodeus. Cruel and self-serving he may be, but he turns out to be much more complex than the pantomime villain of the first novel, and an incredibly sympathetic character.
The overall cast of characters remains strong and diverse. It’s good to see motherhood portrayed, along with older women in positions of power and influence. There are gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, as well as the obvious racial diversity of the Annamite and Fallen characters.
With the groundwork laid in its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns is a much more interesting and powerful novel. de Bodard’s series is shaping up to be extremely interesting indeed.
Goodreads rating: 4*