The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
Earlier this week Tom Hunter, the Award Director for the Arthur C Clarke Awards, released the list – NOT A LONGLIST – of all the books submitted to the judges this year for the Clarke Award. It amounts to 113 novels, the second highest submission count behind 2014’s tally of 121 books.
I’ve read 9 of the novels featured on the not a longlist (and by the time the nominees have been announced in late April I will probably have read four or five more). If I had to single out one book that I’m pleased to see submitted it would be Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard – a very good novel that was nominated for last year’s Goldsmith Prize and which I reviewed here. It’s interesting because when I discussed Acts back in October, I noted that:
While Acts of the Assassins is set in an alternate history, this really isn’t a speculative fiction novel. There is an expectation among genre fans that when an author diverges from known historical events she or he has considered the ramification of that fork in the road. But other than retaining the Roman Empire as a world power, because what would Jesus be without Romans, nothing else has really changed; history, without Christianity, has essentially followed the same track. There are iPhones (branded as such), people drink Coca Cola and the airport in Israel is called Ben Gurion, implying that the country gained its independence in 1948. In other words, Beard has made no concession to what our contemporary life would be like if there’d been no such thing as Jesus two thousand year previously. Consequently, I’m sure there will be fans of speculative fiction who struggle to read a book that seems to care so little about the ripples of history.
If the book does get a guernsey for the Clarke, it will be fascinating to see whether Beard’s deliberate unwillingness to work through the logic of his alternate history will just piss genre (and Clarke) readers off.
Anyway, if you want a more thoughtful analysis of this very long list – though certainly NOT A LONGLIST – of novels, check out Nina Allan’s post here.
If The House of Shattered Wings had been written by anyone other than Aliette de Bodard I would have stopped reading the book a quarter of the way in. However, because I’ve enjoyed her shorter work (de Bodard’s novella On a Red Station, Drifting was robbed a Hugo award, it’s magnificent) I persevered with The House of Shattered Wings. I’d like to say that my faith was rewarded, but aside from the odd moment of beautiful writing, the novel proved to be a disappointment.
Conceptually it’s fantastic. The novel is set in a ruined Paris decades after the Great War. Not the one that was sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but a Great War in Heaven between rival factions. Or at least that’s what I assumed, information is scant on both the nature of the War and who is fighting who. This is because the Fallen, angels who’ve been exiled from heaven and literally plummet to Earth, have their memories wiped. Their angelic powers also begin to fade the moment they touch mortal ground. With so many Fallen in Paris they form Houses where they can wield whatever angelic power and influence they have left. When the novel opens House Silverspires, once run by the Fallen Morningstar (you’d know him from such names as Satan and Lucifer) and now headed by Selene is in the descendancy. In contrast House Hawthorn, controlled by the devious Asmodeus, is having its moment in the sun.
[True Fact: Asmodeus, or Ashmadai, featured in my first ever published story. A Bernice Summerfield short called Midrash].
As much as I loved the setting and conceit of the novel, the execution fell flat. My main issue centres around the three protagonists – Selene and Asmodeus aside. They would be Isabelle, a newly fallen angel, Philippe, an outsider and immortal who hails from Annam (according to Wikipedia the name for Vietnam before 1945) and Madeline, the alchemist for House Silverspires who also happens to be human. I could never imagine Madeline, Phillipe (and to a lesser extent Isabelle) having a life beyond the scenes they’re featured in. Essentially, I began to imagine them as actors standing just beyond the frame waiting for their cue. I think the problem – ironically? – is that de Bodard provides too much information about their interior lives. We’re constantly told what they’re thinking, what they plan to do, their doubts and fears and anxieties. And while I accept that some of that is important to build character, the constant need to explain their every motivation makes them less sympathetic, less developed as people.
One aspect of the novel I did like is that the Fallen have no memory of their time in Heaven and as a result begin to doubt the existence of God. This is the sort of paradox that I’d hoped the novel would explore further, rather than the dull and predictable political machinations between the Houses.
It’s not that this wasn’t my type of book – because conceptually it certainly interested me – it’s that the style and tone de Bodard adopted, a deliberate choice on her part rather than an indication of bad writing or bad editing, is one that I don’t have patience for. There were moments when I was in sync with the novel, especially when Phillipe heads under the Seine into the domain of the dragons. But what I’ve come to realise is that I’m not doing myself or an author any favors by grinding through their novel to the bitter end on the basis that I’ve enjoyed and loved their previous work.
Having said that my opinion of The House of Shattered Wings is in a minority and I would recommend you seek a second opinion by reading Mahvesh Murad’s intelligent thoughts on the book.
One of the (only) advantages of not reading Chris Beckett’s Clarke and BSFA award-winning novel Dark Eden, is that I found it very easy to sympathise with the main characters of Mother of Eden. Just like Starlight Brooking or Julie Deepwater I had no idea which stories about the founding fathers and mother of the human colony of Eden were true. And that’s important because the hazy distinction between truth and mythology is a key aspect of this fine novel.
Dark Eden, from what I can gather, tells the story of a doomed mission to colonise the planet Eden. The remaining two survivors – one of whom is Angela Young – have children who, over a number of generations, form a small community of 500 or so souls. One of the descendants is John Redlantern who decides against the wishes of the community, The Family, to search beyond the boundaries of their world. And this one decision has profound effects on the fledgling colony and the future of Eden. It’s not helped that John Redlantern has absconded with a sacred artefact, the holy of holies: Angela Young’s ring – a gift from her loving parents back on Earth.
While I believe that’s a reasonably accurate description of what happens in Dark Eden I can’t be sure because everything I know about that book is based on the stories and mythology and fables and apocrypha known to the characters of Mother of Eden that have accrued around John and his friends over the years. Cue stage left Starlight Brooking. She, and the Kneetree Folk, live on a tiny island (it can barely accommodate 70 people) and are descendants of Jeff (good mate of John). They live a reasonably idyllic lifestyle, simple and peaceful. But just like her great great… etc ancestor, Starlight wants to explore. She wants to meet the Johnfolk and Davidfolk (who to this day fight over the ownership of Angela’s ring) and she wants to see the Veekle, a crashed shuttle that led to the death of the three of the original colonists. On a trip to Veeklehouse (where the shuttle is protected by the Davidfolk) Starlight meets John Greenstone, headmanson of the Johnfolk across the Worldpool. He falls in love with her almost immediately and asks that she come back with him to New Earth, home of the Johnfolk.
And this is where truth and fable and myth become a key driver of the novel. Because when Starlight arrives in New Earth she is faced with a sexist patriarchy (I suppose that’s a tautology), that exhibits the worst excesses of capitalism (still a tautology?) as the Chiefs and Teachers keep a thumb on an ignorant and frightened populace. When Starlight marries John she becomes wearer of Mother Gela (Angela’s) ring. And Starlight believes this gives her the mandate to overturn what she sees as an evil, oppressive society that has deliberately rewritten and recast the words of Mother Gela and John to serve their purpose.
In one sense this is a very familiar fish out of water story where the innocent but stubborn and principled protagonist becomes a force for change in society. Starlight’s actions are the beginnings of a revolution and how it unfolds is inevitable… and predictable. But what I loved about the book is its fable like quality. The irony of Starlight’s decision to overthrow the class and gender structures of New Earth by attacking how the Teachers and Chiefs have interpreted the words of Angela and John, is that almost immediately stories about Starlight, especially her power to heal the sick, emerge. If Beckett makes one thing clear it’s that generations need not past for mythologies to arise. Even recent history can be recast as a religious tract.
Mother Eden deals with gender, it deals with class, it deals, realistically with the near impossible struggle to overturn entrenched ideologies. Some of these issues, especially those of gender and class, are a little 101 in their representation – insight wise there’s nothing new here. But in terms of faith and mythology and truth and belief, Mother of Eden poignantly illustrates the desire and need for the oppressed to believe in something bigger and greater than themselves – whether rightly or wrongly. Maybe the conclusion is that New Earth and Eden as a whole is a society that needs a good dose of Marxism. Or maybe it’s that we never grow out of the need to turn flawed people into heroes, that the desire to fictionalise the truth is embedded in our DNA.