De Bodard has a reputation for introducing new and challenging worlds to the fantasy genre. Her Blood and Obsidian series was set in the Mexica Empire of Central America, in a reality that mingled a multitude of gods with ancient traditions of magic and death. The House of Binding Thorns, on the other hand, does for Paris what many authors have already done for London: create a magical alternative reality out of a city with a deeply compelling mythology all of its own.
Paris has long deserved this treatment, and de Bodard has done an excellent job of delivering. This is the sequel to the House of Shattered Wings, which introduced readers to a city dominated by the Houses led by a collection of Fallen Angels. Chief among them, this book’s predecessor dealt mostly with the fall of Lucifer Morningstar and his House Silverspires. Her sequel now continues with a focus this time on the fortunes of House Hawthorn and its leader, Asmodeus.
Since pretty much every review of a fantasy novel must now refer somewhere to Game of Thrones, this one will be no different. This is Game of Thrones with angels taking the place of aristocratic humans, and the dragons are not fire-breathing but waterborne and of an Eastern, Viet tradition rather than the Western one. The book follows the very different lives of Madeleine, a survivor of the fallen House Silverspires, and a spy in House Hawthorn for the dragon kingdom, seeking to understand what Asmodeus wants from their own empire under the Seine.
This is a delicately crafted world, and a study in the clashing of cultures, the politics of survival and desperation. De Bodard portrays both the decimated Paris and the decaying dragon kingdom beautifully. Neither world is doing well, and the old order of angels in Paris and emperors in the dragon kingdom are both under assault from the rebellious rising from their own ranks. Madeleine’s importance to Asmodeus sometimes feels strained – especially if you haven’t had the luxury of reading the first book first – but Thuan’s investigation and his role as spy are both captivating enough.
This is definitely a work for those of us who want to move away from the traditional boundaries of fantasy, and want to see more cities given the sort of treatment that China Miéville and Neil Gaiman have bestowed upon London. Paris is certainly ripe for it, and the world that de Bodard has created both fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.