I put off reading this for a while for some reason – but in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed this smart, engaging Victorian fantasy.
It’s set in 1889 Paris, not the 1889 Paris we all know (ha ha) – this one is a fantastical world, with four Houses of an international order, the Order of Babel. Each House historically has its own matriarch (or patriarch), except that one house has fallen – the Fallen House – and is no more; and the heir of another – the House of Vanth – was found to be not the true heir during some magic test of rings 10 years ago. That failed heir is Severin, convinced that the test was fixed and that he must reclaim his birthright. In the meantime he manages to be very wealthy, owns a Paris hotel, and has gathered a diverse band of accomplices who help in his trade of “acquisitions,” commonly known as theft, robbery or heists.
Some aspects of this world are dealt with rather sketchily: the background is that the biblical Tower of Babel fragmented and the fragments scattered, providing the foundation of civilizations, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of how the Houses arose or even of the current members, apart from the misfit patriarch Hypnos who joins the band. The forging magic which certain members of the Houses possess – who has it, how, do they receive training, what does it do??? Some of that stuff is there but it’s very fleeting and we don’t really see it. Similarly, the bad guys – to do with the Fallen House – are not really given enough presence, motivation or background to seem deeply sinister or scary. I found myself wondering why Severin didn’t join forces with the Fallen House, as they’d both been kicked out of the Order.
The story has a number of very strong points. The Paris Exposition at the time was a celebration of empire and racial supremacy: the novel counterpoints that brilliantly, partly through its highly diverse characters and partly through its explicit discussions and references (one character is a mixed-race filipino historian) as to how history is rewritten and cultures erased through colonization. The characters’ diversity is not limited to their racial identities – although that is intrinsic to the plot: is that why Severin was denied his birthright? The brilliant Zofia is on the autistic spectrum, Hypnos is queer, Enrique pan… so, diversity in various ways.
The writing is often sumptuous and poetic, and paints gorgeous sensuous scenes. The puzzles and problems, and the interweaving of this magical world with ancient civilizations, mythologies and religions, are very cleverly done. The characters are extremely engaging for the most part. Two things slightly bothered me at the end: A reveal about Tristan – why? I could have done without that (and why did the bad guy target him anyway? I didn’t understand the reason). Plus Severin seemed to undergo a personality transplant for the last couple of scenes and turned into a dick. If I’m going to be super-picky, too – interesting that Severin and his buds are wealthy. Racism and oppression are in reality tied very closely to wealth acquisition: the general status of the oppressed is that they are poor, and have to work long hours in cruddy jobs just to eat. They don’t potter around experimenting in laboratories and greenhouses, or perusing historical texts in libraries. Only the oppressors have time for that kind of thing. So the racism here is stand-alone, not tied to economic exploitation as is the case in the real world.
But apart from that – if you like smart fantasy with healthy multicultural themes, very engaging characters and a fast-moving story, then you should give this one a go. Definitely a cut above, sophisticated YA.
What Works And Why?
We read to escape, enjoy, engage, and find out more about our world. So reading is great - but what makes a great read? A page dedicated to short analyses of how writers engage readers.