And Why Should You Read It
Dominion of the Fallen is one of my favorite fantasy series, so, unsurprisingly, I recommend it to everyone who listens to me and at every possible moment. I’ve finally decided to write one all-encompassing post about why I love Dominion of the Fallen by Aliette de Bodard, and why I think that everyone who loves fantasy, especially historical and urban fantasy, should give it a try.
Note: Dominion of the Fallen series has three main novels (The House of Shattered Wings, The House of Binding Thorns, The House of Sundering Flames), two novellas (Children of Thorns, Children of Water and Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders), and several short stories published in magazines or solo collections. But I’ve only read one short story, so, when I talk about the series, I’m actually talking primarily about novels and novellas.
Also, it’s been two years since I’ve read three of these titles, and last year I finished the series with The House of Sundering Flames and Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders. If I make some mistake, it’s probably due to my memory.
1. The dark setting and the worldbuilding of a magical post-apocalypse in an alternative France
Look, I love dark settings, the sort of world that fascinates you, but you would never actually want to live there. Because, pretty much everything is just so awful. Dominion of the Fallen is set in such a world, in the aftermath of a big magical war that left the land desolated (think WWI, but with fallen angels fighting amongst themselves with magic). The Seine is toxic thanks to magical debris, and everything is gray, rotting and diseased. It’s pretty much a post-apocalypse, just one set in history, rather than the future.
While I’m at the setting and the way the world looks, it needs to be mentioned that the stories are set in an alternative Paris. It looks like the Paris of the late 19th/early 20th century, but with an urban fantasy twist. Paris is ruled by Fallen Angels (meaning demons, of course) who, upon falling from Heaven, didn’t end up in Hell, but instead live among the people of France. (And then they promptly turn the world into Hell.) Because they have magic, it gives them the power to rule, colonize and wage war. Through the series, we learn a lot about the way they’ve shaped the world around them, the history of the great war they’d fought (the stories are set in the aftermath, not the war itself), how they manage their places of power and the people who are under them. There’s a lot of small detail that weave into the world, giving life to this alternative Paris. Also, I want to point out that I really liked the Vietnamese inspirations used in worldbuilding. The underwater dragon kingdom is still one of my favorite parts.
2. The Houses—because every great fantasy should have a “team” affiliations
I like my SFF with the society split into distinct groups. Like, you know, different nobility houses in aSoIaF or The Locked Tomb, or different factions in The Machineries of Empire; all loyal to themselves, with their own set of rules, colors, mottos, symbols, uniforms etc. I love that, and I always have to take the personality sorting quiz if it exists. (I love it that there’s a sorting quiz for The Machineries of Empire factions. For those who read this science fiction series by Yoon Ha Lee, if you’re wondering—I’m Kel, apparently.)
Dominion of the Fallen has that sort of stuff in the way Paris is split among Fallen Angels who are ruling from their seats of power. The series follows a few great Houses—most notably, House Silverspires (whose founder was Lucifer), House Hawthorn and House Harrier. Houses span across whole territories, with complex systems of hierarchy resembling nobility, but with angels and humans. There are also people who are considered Houseless and they are, of course, on the bottom of the social ladder, those who are the most powerless and vulnerable.
Houses aren’t something that we should like. The narrative shows us, time and time again, how their power is corrupt, how they destroy, how unfair this system is and that it should be destroyed itself. But it also gives us the perspective of some pretty important characters from these Houses, meaning that we follow characters who have their identity connected to their specific House. I ended up loving Hawthorn thanks to that. (Fun fact: when I was reading the first novel, I hated Hawthorn and Asmodeus—the ruling Fallen of that house. By the second book he was one of my faves. It can get like that when you’re also a shipper and the author gives you a great enemies-to-lovers ship to care about.)
3. Morally complex characters are driving the story
I love antiheroes, and good villains are so important for a great story. This series has everything. From complex villains and antiheroes as major characters, to people who aren’t evil, but who are forced to do some really destructive and/or morally dubious stuff to protect those they love, their families and communities. Given that the world is so dark and bleak, that the ruling Houses are horrible, and that the whole system is based on abuse of power, it’s not so surprising. All of the major characters, regardless of their moral “alignment”, have really interesting character arcs, development and characterization. The narrative has them dealing with past trauma and hard decisions, and they don’t always do what’s good, but they are fully fleshed in all their flaws, as well as their virtues.
4. And they’re gay
A big reason why I love this series is because it has such a big cast of main queer characters. Women loving women, men loving men, trans angels—and all of them are major, point-of-view and main characters. Also, I believe the author mentioned that she wrote one of the main characters as ace, but it’s not really clear (directly stated) in the text.
The books have everything, from established relationships, queer families and a romance subplot (have I already mentioned enemies-to-lovers? With a dash of arranged marriage? Chef’s kiss.) The one big gay romance ship that I absolutely adore has its own novella, and I hope that we’ll get maybe another one, or two, or five, because I could read a whole spin-off series just with them.
5. Interesting themes
I like the way the books talk about power. How it shapes the people who wield it, how easy it is to abuse, how people are ready to do some truly horrible stuff to get it, to grow it, to become even more powerful. The class divisions. The strength in communities. Love that connects and heals. Overcoming trauma and abuse. Surviving in a harsh world that wants to destroy you. Horrors of colonization. Problems of marginalization and race discrimination. There’s a lot of important topics in these books, covered from different perspectives.
6. Magical systems
I love when fantasy plays with magic and sets clear rules of how it works. In this series, it’s always clear who has magic and who doesn’t and what sort of it exists. But, most importantly, I love the way Angels are made of magic. Because it gives us some truly great gems, like—people inhaling ground angel bones as an enhancing drug. It gives us a new version of fallen angels, doing something different with them, while still keeping them recognizable. Also, the fact that you can get sick from magic is not new for fantasy, but I like how it was handled here, with making a clear connection to drugs.
But it’s not only Angels who can use magic, and what I loved is the way Vietnamese characters use it. As a Croatian who grew up on western media, I don’t know a lot about Vietnam, their stories, culture and history, and this series is bursting with Vietnamese inspiration. Those parts are what stood out to me the most, what interested me much more than Fallen Angels lore. This is also why I like other works by Aliette de Bodard.
These are just some of the reasons I like Dominion of the Fallen, but I mostly love it because the style is so gorgeous, the depictions are vivid, and the characters are fleshed out and interesting. I absolutely adore the dragons and their court (with my bi disaster dragon prince Thuan as one of my favorite characters in general), Philippe, Grandmother Olympe and the Houseless community, the interweaving of Vietnamese and French influences. But, most importantly, I love the way it made me excited for fantasy again and realize how gloriously queer it can be, even when set in a historical setting.
If you haven’t read it yet, give it a chance.