This book reads like nothing so much as someone trying to capture a Vampire LARP game on paper. Yes, I know it's angels instead of vampires. No, I've never actually played a Vampire LARP. I'm not a taking a dig at Vampire LARPS - I have friends who enjoy them quite a lot. What I am trying to say is that what works in a game space might not necessarily work if someone tries to translate it to the page, and that may not be what's happening here, but it feels like it.
The wheeling and dealing and everyone being slightly shady and on the make and probably ruthless for their own purposes, and jockeying for power with different houses - these are the things that make it feel like a vampire LARP. It's set in an alt-Paris, where there has been a supernatural war of some sort, and in the ruins of the city, people have to join gangs or houses for even a modicum of safety.
That's House with a capital H, I guess. They're run by Fallen Angels, for the most part, although not a single Fallen Angel can remember what they did to fall. They're not particularly nice people. But then, no one is, in this book.
And that's sort of my main problem. I don't demand a main character who is pure and noble and warm and fuzzy. I'm good with complex heroes that you nonetheless care about, characters who, even though you wouldn't necessarily like them in real life, a skillful author can nonetheless make you understand. Make you feel for them, even if you disagree with them. Create that connection between the reader and a main character who is difficult.
I never really felt a connection to any of the central characters in this book. I never got close enough to any of them to care what happened. Philippe, the Vietnamese or Vietnamese-equivalent immortal sort-of sorcerer, Isabelle, the newly fallen angel, Madeline, the drug-addicted alchemist or Selene, head of one of the houses - they were all important to the book. But they steadfastly failed to be important to me.
As a result, although the writing isn't bad, I never really captured a sense of enjoyment or even deep engagement with the book. I can't pinpoint exactly why I never connected with any of the characters. It's not a thing I usually have trouble with - my empathy is usually set to 11, and it is not hard to make me care about characters.
Instead, I got to hear all about how everyone here is corrupt and makes compromises, and never made that connection that would let me like them despite that. Instead, I just got a lot of fairly unlikeable people doing unlikeable things, and no one ever trying to do something different than jockeying for power and sacrificing people for their own self-interest.
Thinking back to my husband's central question for roleplaying characters "what's the one thing you can't walk away from?" I guess two of the characters did have that - Selene her House, Philippe Isabelle, but I never connected closely enough with those drives.
Something about this book just rubbed me the wrong way and kept me at a distance. It's a pity, since de Bodard can certainly write competently. It was just on an emotional level I couldn't connect.