Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
The House of Binding Thorns follows on from the BSFA Best Novel winner of 2015, The House of Shattered Wings but both is and isn’t a sequel to that earlier book. While key characters, such as the addicted alchemist, Madeleine, and weak-willed immortal, Philippe, are still central to the proceedings, they are joined by a range of new protagonists, such as the heavily-pregnant Françoise, who lives with the dying ‘Fallen’ (magical returned angel), Berith, outside the big ‘House’ system through which the Fallen exert their power over this alternate Paris, and Thuan, a nephew of Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the Dragon kingdom under the Seine. While the first novel concerned the fortunes of House Silverspires, the action in the second is centred – as its title suggests – on House Hawthorn, headed by the enigmatic and deliciously evil Asmodeus.
The advantage of unabashed genre fiction over mainstream realist fiction is that it enables a much clearer depiction of how power relations, both at individual and societal level, function. In a modern society with the ideological veneer of the political equality of citizens, Asmodeus would no doubt be the epitome of the manipulative centrist politician who is truly monstrous. However, as de Bodard gradually reveals to us, the seemingly absolute power of the House system actually forces him to take responsibility for his actions. By the end of the novel, his relationship with his dependant, Madeleine, who is initially terrified of him, has been transformed into something mutually meaningful in subtle and complex ways.
Of course, the idea that relationships in a feudal system might be both richer and more human than those in a capitalist democracy has been a mainstay of genre since Walter Scott’s historical novels of the early nineteenth century. But while this understanding is central to The Lord of the Rings and the subsequent works it influenced, this doesn’t mean that all fantasy writers employing feudal elements share the politics of Tolkien. De Bodard takes pains to show us the difficulties but also the possibilities of building a community outside the Houses in the poor dockside region of La Goute d’Or, where Françoise, Berith and Philippe are trying to make their lives amongst the Vietnamese Community. More significantly, however, the world she depicts is devoid of the patriarchal and compulsory-heterosexual logic that once upon a time was taken for granted as the natural mechanism of fantasy.
A queer feudal society in which power relationships are openly visible and consent proves central to meaningful relationships turns out to be highly seductive. It is not fear alone that maintains the loyalty of House Hawthorn dependants to Asmodeus. Indeed, in perhaps the most important political dimension to the novel, de Bodard shows how fear corrupts the potential for dynamic consensual relationships in her society. Fear is shown to be self-perpetuating and immune even to attempts to begin with a clean sheet, as the revolutionary terror at the beginning of Asmodeus’s reign as Head is retrospectively revealed to have been. Instead, we are offered the prospect of a future with no promises other than the opportunity to live in it and see what happens.
The House of Binding Thorns blends the power plays and magical exchanges of classic fantasy with intriguing mystery, queer romance, Parisian settings, Vietnamese legends, and the sensibility of the nineteenth-century gothic novel into an intoxicating potion. While the plot is skilfully constructed to move the protagonists through a series of interlocking climaxes, the overall effect is not so much resolution as a delirious feeling of sensory overload. The reader is left with that kind of hangover in which dizziness and pain are experienced as sensual pleasures; still able to feel the burn of angel essence at the back of their throat and in thrall to the orange-blossom-and-bergamot scent of desire.
Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved
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