Aliette De Bodard on The House Of Binding Thorns and pitching angels against dragons - SciFiNow

Aliette De Bodard on The House Of Binding Thorns and pitching angels against dragons

We talk to Aliette De Bodard about her brilliant follow-up to The House Of Shattered Wings

Aliette De Bodard has returned to the dystopian fantasy Paris of The House Of Shattered Wings with The House Of Binding Thorns, and it is a triumphant follow-up. The world of the fallen angels, split into competing Houses, the Annamite dragons living underneath the Seine, and the mortals and immortals caught in the crossfire is explored in greater depth with a thrilling, compelling story, as Madeleine is pressed into the service of the terrifying Asmodeus and into the middle of a dangerous world of treaties, double-crossing, rebellion and revolution.

We talked to the author about the changes and challenges of the second book in the story, her inspirations and the joy of blending mythologies…

Was it easy returning to the world of The House Of Shattered Wings?

It was harder than I’d thought–I finished The House Of Shattered Wings in mid-2015, and by the time I started writing its sequel The House Of Binding Thorns it was end of 2016, and I’d forgotten a lot of the universe. I also sort of knew where the book was going, because I’d written a synopsis for my editors (at Gollancz and Ace), but I just couldn’t find the right starting point. Then, one day, I just sat down and wrote the first scene, in which Madeleine finds herself imprisoned in House Hawthorn and not very gently “encouraged” to give up the angel essence to which she’s addicted, and all of a sudden everything seemed to snap back together!

Had you always intended on shifting the focus from Silverspires to Hawthorn for the second book?

I’d always intended to shift Houses for the second book: because the first book was so much about House Silverspires and the people within, whether they’d chosen to join the House or were trapped within it, I thought that the second one had to change its focus lest it become repetitive. Hawthorn was a natural choice because Madeleine already had a connection to it, and also because I’ve always had a contrarian streak: House Hawthorn was one of the main antagonists in the first book, and presented as this dark and cruel place, and I really wanted to show that the reality was more complex than that.

I also used Hawthorn’s location, quite near the Seine, as an opportunity to put more dragon kingdom into the narrative: the Annamite underwater kingdom of the Seine was one of my favourite set pieces in the first book, one that’s survived many incarnations of the novel, and I was much looking forward to exploring it further.

Which of the new characters was the most exciting, or challenging, to explore?

Thuan, the dragon prince who’s spying in House Hawthorn, was the trickiest one for me. He has a character arc that encompasses a lot of hard-hitting changes, and I didn’t have a lot of space to make him grow. I had originally written him as a bit of a naive person, but I realised that if he’d grown up in the imperial court of the dragon kingdom, he’d be actually much more likely to be very good at dissembling and intrigue. It made for a much more interesting story if he knew what he was doing (and still got into trouble because it’s that kind of book).

I have to say, though, that I found the returning characters a lot harder to write about than the new ones: it’s always hard to make sure there’s continuity between how they were in book 1 and how they are in book 2, but that in spite of that they’re going to new places. Philippe in particular was really hard–he’s in a new place, the Houseless Annamite community, and working out how he’d interact with people there was trickier. I ended up reading a lot on Vietnamese immigrant communities and their dynamics to make sure I had the right feel for what was going on.

We get to see a lot more of Asmodeus in this book. Was it a challenge to explore the character’s conflicts in greater detail without losing how scary he is?

Asmodeus is actually pretty relaxing to write! Sarcasm comes pretty naturally to me, and apparently so do scary sarcastic Fallen angels with a taste for hurting other characters. The scene where he and Ngoc Bich, the ruler of the dragon kingdom, are in the same room and trading barbed insults practically wrote itself.

I had a pretty good idea of what motivated him–a lot of things I already knew from book 1 but couldn’t put into it, and some I worked out in some linked short fiction (including “The House, In Winter”, the short story that takes place in Hawthorn just after his coup, in the mass market paperback edition of The House of Shattered Wings). It was relatively easy to keep him scary because most of the characters in the book don’t like him: Madeleine is scared to death of him, Thuan is fascinated but considers him his enemy, and the other two characters hate him for a variety of personal reasons. I deliberately added some passages when he was actually doing scary things–and Gillian Redfearn, my editor at Gollancz, rightly pointed out he needed to be doing more hurtful things to Madeleine, as well. The hardest thing wasn’t so much that he had conflicts and was vulnerable, but making him admit to it in a believable context–I basically had him at death’s door before that happened!

I love the character of Madeleine, and I was wondering if it was tricky to write a character that’s so trapped and despondent while still keeping us invested in her journey?

Madeleine is in many ways the moral compass of the other characters–and in particular of this book. She’s the person who wonders about doing the right thing even when the right thing is costly or impossible to do, and if anything her main weakness is that she puts others first and doesn’t value herself at all. I’ve got a lot of affection for her, even while recognising that she’s probably terminally unsuited for a cutthroat universe of post-magical-war Paris where everyone is cheerfully backstabbing everyone. But I think it’s this fundamental goodness that helps with her character arc? And with her despondency also comes a certain lucidity: she’s under no illusions of what she can and cannot do, which makes her sympathetic to a certain degree.

We also see much more of the Annamite dragon society under the Seine. How did you go about constructing that, and ensuring that it felt very different to the Houses?

The Annamite dragon basically comes from a completely different society than the Houses. The Houses–and Hawthorn in particular–are drawn from Parisian 19th Century high society and the grand receptions in hotels particuliers, the huge and luxurious mansions of the rich. For the dragon kingdom, I drew on pre-colonial Vietnam, and in particular on the Nguyen court in the 19th Century, which was a hotbed of factions and political intrigues among high ranking scholars. I simplified the structure quite a bit to make it fit into a novel which already had a lot of threads and worldbuilding, but that’s where I found the basic political system. The locations are based, too, on the imperial city in Hue, particularly the palace–which means that physically it’s a very different environment.

How much fun is it to clash these two different forms of mythology together?

Entirely too much fun! I’ve always been interested in how different cultures interact–and with this book in particular, I drew on two historical precedents. One is the opium wars, because I had an important plot strand where someone was trafficking angel essence into the dragon kingdom (and suspicion fell, obviously, on House Hawthorn), and the importation of opium into China looms very large as a model. The other one was the history of early French interference in Vietnam in the first half of the 19th Century, which eventually led to the colonisation of the country–it was really interesting to see the variety of attitudes, from wanting to know more about the French and striking alliances with them, to violently rejecting them and wanting to close the entire country against them, and I wanted to reflect some of that complexity in the dragon characters.

I also got a chance to do some really interesting things with the two different magical systems (Fallen and dragon), particularly with characters who knew and used both–a number of people in the book come up with creative ways of doing spells that rely on the strong points of each magic, using them to reinforce rather than destroy each other, and put them to more or less nefarious uses!

Is the next book in the series what you’re working on next?

My contract was for only two books: I definitely have ideas for a third but it’s at proposal stage for the time being. I’m mostly focusing on short fiction at the moment: I wrote a novella and some short stories set in the same universe that I need to clean up, and I also have some science fiction stories due in the next few months!

Were there any specific inspirations for this?

For The House Of Binding Thorns specifically? I wanted to take some of the staples of Gothic fiction and give them a different slant: you have the arranged marriage, the perilous pregnancy, the grand and decaying mansion with a terrible history, the isolated households (or in this case, House and kingdom) who don’t understand each other… A lot of Gothic fiction doesn’t really have “foreign” elements though, or if they do it’s very often used with negative connotations (think of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, who has Roma blood and is described as looking like a Lascar). I wanted to break that particular problematic stereotype by having a diverse Paris, and a strong Vietnamese presence in the book.

The series universe is a bit of a cross between 19th Century French fiction like Dumas’s Count Of Monte Cristo or Hugo’s Les Misérables, and manga like Black Butler and Fullmetal Alchemist, with added post-apocalypse feel. It actually started out as a 21st-Century urban fantasy–but ultimately it turned into something quite different!

Do you remember what your first encounter with genre fiction was?

I’m not quite sure? Certainly the Vietnamese fairytales I was told by my mother and grandmother, where people met immortals and flower fairies on mountains (though I’ll note that these present some interesting category issues, as they’d be fantasy in the West but considered mainstream in Vietnam). And there were lots of children’s books that were really genre, like Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, or even bandes dessinées like Roger Leloup’s Yoko Tsuno or Grzegorz Rosinski and Van Hamme’s Thorgal. Genre as such I don’t think I consciously sought out until we moved to London, and the library shelved all its books by genre rather than by alphabetical order under “General Fiction”–that’s when I became aware that all the books I liked to read tended to all be on the same set of shelves.

Which authors are you particularly excited about at the moment?

So many! I had the chance to read JY Yang’s upcoming The Red Threads Of Fortune, which is coming out from Tor in September, and it’s a gorgeous book set in an Asian-inspired world that’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. By now everyone probably has discovered the brilliance that is Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, since it’s (deservedly) on the Hugo and Nebula ballot: it’s weird and sharp space opera that’s endlessly inventive, and a pair of main characters linked to each other in a way that just can’t end well. I’m much looking forward to the sequel, The Raven Stratagem, which is out in June this year. Tade Thompson’s Rosewater was one of the standouts of the previous year for me, and this year he has a dark novella coming out from Tor.com in October, The Murders Of Molly Southbourne, which is a twisted and amazingly believable story of a woman who keeps murdering her own doubles. And also books by Zen Cho, Elizabeth Bear, Kate Elliott, Fran Wilde, Martha Wells, Foz Meadows, Michelle Sagara, …

The House Of Binding Thorns is available now from Gollancz and you can read our review here. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.