Book Review: The House of Sundering Flames by Aliette de Bodard

The Great Houses of Paris—headed by Fallen angels and magicians—have co-existed in fragile peace. When a powerful explosion razes House Harrier, old alliances are torn apart and a race begins to fill the power void.

Thuan, the beleaguered dragon head of House Hawthorn, finds a war on his doorstep. Aurore, once cast out by Harrier and almost beaten to death, seeks power to protect her family—and must venture back to her former home. And, in the ruins of House Harrier, Emmanuelle desperately tries to piece her fragmented memories of the explosion.

But beneath House Harrier awaits a fiery magic that hungers for destruction. And it is time for Houses and Houseless to stand together—or be engulfed in flames… 

Finally, my trilogy binge has come to an end and it’s always such fun to read all books at once, taking it all in. And this was such an immersive experience.

The author took this book in a much different direction than I was expecting. It starts off literally with a bang and just continues on with more, the stakes feeling higher and higher and even hopeless at times. It was interesting to see how the narrative changes when a big bad affects both the magical beings and mortals equally, and how each of them will react.

I think what I liked most about this one was how the author managed to bring all the important themes from the series to a head in this finale. This trilogy has always been about unbridled power and how those who exert it use it in oppressive ways, and this book finally shows us the devastating consequences of what happens when power goes unchecked. But it also shows the opposite side – what happens when the always powerless get some power of their own suddenly – will they use it to safeguard themselves or will power corrupt them as well. The other major theme that cuts very emotionally is that of colonial plunder – how the colonizers use their might to destroy colonies, abuse their resources and then use those people to fight their own wars – separating a whole group of people from their homeland and culture for generations to come, leading to never ending trauma. The author doesn’t give us many answers because they aren’t any, but we do get to see that sometimes, everyone has to cooperate or work together to stave off worst situations.

We get to know Emmanuelle in a very deep way in this book, seeing the kind of Fallen she is outside of her relationship with Selene. Aurore is a new character who only wants her family’s safety and will do anything to gain the power that will help her. I was very sympathetic to her plight but was also scared of the path she was taking, though the author did end up doing her character justice. Philippe is probably the one who has the most elaborate character arc, where he ends up realizing that not everything that has happened to him has been due to his helplessness, but that he has also made choices that have led to his current state. It was also interesting to see him falter in his dynamic with Isabelle, before realizing that he was treating her like he exerted control over her.

And of course my favorite parts were of Thuan and Asmodeus – how they both are a perfect foil to each other’s natures, trying to be better when the other falters. It was both fascinating and exhausting to see Thuan navigate the politics of House Hawthorn where he was stalled in all his attempts for reform because the old guard liked being fearful of their leader, rather than having another who wanted to be kind. But it was so enjoyable to see Thuan and Asmodeus actually be on the same page when it came to matters of the House, even though Asmodeus would never agree that he was being kind. I’ve already read the spin-off novella featuring both of them, but I feel like reading it again because I’ve completely fallen in love with this couple.

In the end, this was a very dark and immersive urban fantasy trilogy that explores the power dynamics between people with different levels of powers, and the mortals; and also the devastating effects of colonialism. It’s full of great characters who are amazing to follow along, twisty political intrigue and diplomacy, and some very unforgettable world building. The fact that it’s full of queer relationships gave me joy and I wish we get more fantasy novels with queernormative worlds.

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