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The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard. The Essential Paradise Lost edited by John Carey. Book Reviews

March 17, 2017

 

House of Binding Thorn

The House of Binding Thorns a type of urban-Gothic House of Cards, a story developed through the lens of Vietnamese myths and legends, and written by Aliette de Bodard, a modern author and software engineer, might seem to have little in common with the epic poem Paradise Lost based on the ‘fall of man’ in The Bible by John Milton a seventeenth-century poet and civil servant. But there is a mutual resonance in the commanding narrative, the epic power struggles, the intrigue and strength of characterisation. They also share a sense of awe that can only be induced by the terror of fierce and beautiful fallen angels, which makes them a thing to behold and a force to be reckoned with.

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

With the once powerful House Silverspires wrecked, House Hawthorn holds sway in Paris, a city now ruled by fallen angels who vie for control of it. Phillippe, an immortal who escaped his imprisonment at Silverspires is now free, but obsessed with bringing someone he valued back from the dead. Trapped inside House Hawthorn, Madeleine, the angel essence addicted alchemist, is locked in a struggle of wills with its charismatic leader, Asmodeus, who is sending her into the Dragon Kingdom under the waters of the Seine and into great peril.

The scene is set for yet another shift in the balance of power.

The House of Binding Thorns might only be set within the environs of Paris, both above and below water, but there is a sense of epic events unfolding in a place which feels much bigger than it really is.

Asmodeus is writ large in this volume. His presence can be felt on every page, even when he is absent. He is unflinchingly cruel, yet when the threat of similar unpleasantness might be visited upon him you see how logical a part of the political process he considers it. He is a man whose passions, though tightly reigned in, seep through all his meticulously maintained emotional fortifications until his up close and personal scenes with a certain Dragon Prince pretty much make the book a fire hazard.

Yet the quality of the author’s writing means Asmodeus does not overwhelm what are four other main strands involving Phillippe, Madeleine and two new key characters Thuan and Françoise, each of whom are essential to the intricate dance of the plot.

This is not a standalone book. You really do need to read The House of Shattered Wings, which did all the heavy lifting in terms of delivering important world-building. But this means that The House of Binding Thorns can really let rip with developing the characterisation, intrigue and action. There is an elegance to the writing of this novel, which makes the moments of dispassionate cruelty inescapably palpable (for those it is inflicted on), yet rational (from the viewpoint of the perpetrators). The action and danger is intense and draining.

The conclusion is satisfying and leaves the reader impatient for the next volume.

Essential Paradise Lost

The Essential Paradise Lost by John Milton. Edited by John Carey

Paradise Lost is a work I am repeatedly drawn back to for a re-read. It is effectively a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. But it is so much more than this, because it is a poem rich with description, action, intrigue, love and a vast sweep of emotions that owes its writing to ancient texts. It is a book that has without doubt itself influenced writers ever since it was published.

I have always sensed, in my ‘general reader’ appreciation of Paradise Lost, that Milton has taken The Bible’s version of the ‘fall of man’ and produced a far more nuanced and balanced narration of the tale. Satan and the other fallen angels have been cast out from Heaven and I have always felt, reading Milton’s version of events, they had a raw deal from an overbearing and unreasonably demanding patriarch. There is a delicate manoeuvring of Eve through insidious deception to make her take a bite of the forbidden fruit and encourage Adam to do so as well. Yet instead of using it as an argument for the punishment of woman for Eve’s transgressions, Paradise Lost, certainly to a modern audience, appears to lean towards a sympathetic approach to an individual who has been mercilessly manipulated.

So when a new edition was due to be published, which claimed to distil the poem into something a little more manageable, I was curious to see how it had been edited and whether it affected the quality of the poem for a reader like me who is not a Milton scholar, but merely a civilian reader with a great affection for the work.

In the wrong hands the power of the narrative might have been diminished to little more than a lightening tour of a story that needs to be savoured. Fortunately this version has the advantage of an editor bringing his academic viewpoint to the table in considering what to leave out and what to keep, but who is also able to appreciate that there are readers out there who just want to enjoy a great story, which they have previously avoided because it was just too much to take on.

John Carey has removed the tracts of narrative which for today’s audience would slow the overall pace of what should be an engaging and immersive read, because we are generally not as well versed in theological principles and the classics as a seventeenth-century readership.

The verses that are removed are explained in a concise way. The lines of verse are all numbered to tally with the original text, so if the reader then wants to read the two side-by-side (as I did), it is possible to compare and contrast the two.

I found that Carey’s potted version of the excised text actually helped me to get to grips with some very long winded monologues or descriptions, which had previously been difficult for me to unravel because I was spending too much time shifting backwards and forwards between footnotes (although this book has some very helpful footnotes.

The carefully edited poem retains all its power, foregrounding the magnificent descriptions of great battles and places and allowing the characterisations to shine through.

What editions like this do is give a reader who might feel overwhelmed by the full poem a way in by providing way points, which make it possible for them to navigate through the work appreciating the parts of it which really speak to them. After this they may feel more confident in approaching the full work. Certainly as I sat reading the full version and this edited version side by side I began to see things I had not seen before and consider them in a different way, which enriched the reading experience for me.

The House of Binding Thorns was courtesy of Gollancz via NetGalley. The Essential Paradise Lost was courtesy of Faber & Faber via NetGalley

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