Aliette de Bodard is the author of Dominion of the Fallen: a series of novels set in a Paris ruled by rival Fallen angels and their human thralls. The most recent novel in the series, The House of Binding Thorns, finds an alchemist on a mission to the city’s underwater dragon kingdom. Look for it this Tuesday, April 4!
Unbound Worlds: This is the second book in the Dominion of The Fallen series, but it is a standalone novel. Will I be able to read The House of Binding Thorns without any foreknowledge of the series?
Aliette de Bodard: It is definitely readable without any foreknowledge of the series: I know people who picked it up without having read its predecessor and got on just fine with it! It’s a bit like a mystery series: the plot is standalone and it happens to share some (but not all) characters with its predecessor, The House of Shattered Wings.
UW: The fallen angels that dominate Paris have a strange, mutually predatory relationship with the city’s human inhabitants. Where did that idea come from?
AdB: The Fallen in the series are the source of all magic: they can transfer it to human beings through a touch or a shared breath, or through artefacts that store magic, but it can also be taken from them where they’re dead, through processing of their body parts: in particular, the bones can be ground into a really addictive drug which grants its users immense magical powers, but corrode the lungs and drastically shortens life expectancy. All of this means that the Fallen are more valuable alive only if they actually help mortals–or if they are too powerful to be taken down: Fallen congregate into Houses, which are fortresses protecting both mortals and Fallen from the devastation of the streets, and those Houses try to find young, newborn Fallen before they can be taken apart by gangs for their magic.
I actually started with the angel essence: I was watching an episode of “Bones” where the characters mention that bone dust is corrosive to the lungs. It just stayed with me, and I imagined that people would manufacture a drug from the bones of Fallen angels. From there I sort of worked things out in a logical fashion: I imagined a less effective but safer transfer of magic (to justify why people would be tempted by the drugs but still leave room for mortal magic users), and then the Houses structures (because, if the drugs were so valuable, it meant that people would be killing Fallen as a matter of course if they could!).
UW: You must have done some theological and mythological research to create your setting. Did anything in particular influence the way you perceived an angel fallen to earth might behave?
AdB: It’s funny, I was talking about that on twitter the other day. I haven’t read the seminal text on fallen angels in the English language, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but I’ve consumed its inheritors: I think it’s hard such a large impact that you find echoes of its tragic figure Lucifer/Satan in stories like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (Pullman explicitly draws from it, I don’t know about Gaiman), or on TV shows like “Supernatural” (in France we don’t really have that tradition, so Satan tends to be the tempter/the source of evil without that forlorn grandeur of Milton)
I drew on that for the tragedy inherent to Fallen, but I gave it a different twist, which is that they don’t remember what happened before they Fell (this was partly because I refused to deal with God as a character or Heaven as a setting), so in a sense they’re not very different from humans: they’re not really sure if God exists and have to determine what they believe in, and to guess as to why they might be on earth and if they want to redeem themselves (some, like Asmodeus, the head of House Hawthorn, clearly choose not to).
UW: Angels aren’t the only immortals in the city. There are others, as well. How do they fit into your setting?
AdB: One of the things that’s always bothered me is when a single mythology explains everything that’s going on, and all the world’s mythical beings happen to be aspects of the same system. It’s always felt too neat and tidy to me–not to mention it’s also erasure of everything that doesn’t happen to be from that system. So in my re-imagined Paris we also have different beings who come from different traditions: Vietnamese dragons in human shape, for instance, which are drawn from the stories I learned as a child, and there are references to other beings from other mythologies like the Ancient Greek ones, etc.
UW: If you were able to safely visit the Paris of your books for a day, where would you go? What would you most want to see?
AdB: I’m not an adventurer so I’d head straight to the nearest place of safety. I’m actually really tempted to go down under the Seine, in the underwater dragon kingdom, and enjoy the food and the sights–except that to get there might be a little tricky as I’d need to get past the spells and the guards first!