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Archangel, Sharon Shinn, Ace, 1996, 390 pp.

Genre fiction often treats "love" only as a plot device -- the hero gets the girl and stereotypes reign undisputed. But what is the nature of love, that much maligned and misused word? Do opposites attract, or is that simply a myth (and is myth-making the essential thing anyways)? And where do gender roles, as received, fit into this picture? Sharon Shinn's excellent novel, Archangel, treats some of these questions in an innovative manner, in the context of a compelling story and vivid characters. Shinn manages to deal with some heavy themes, like dominance and social justice, with a fast-paced story that captures the reader's heart quite easily. And if a love story is what you're looking for, Archangel will have you glued to every page until the not-so-bitter end. That Shinn balances all of these things in one book is quite a commendable achievement.

The novel begins with a neat narrative hook: "The angel Gabriel went to the oracle on Mount Sinai, looking for a wife" (1). Gabriel is set to become the next Archangel of Samaria, but he must have a consort (called the angelica) to sing with him at the ceremony (called the Gloria). Unfortunately, he has left the whole marriage thing a bit late, and now he has scramble to find the wife pre-ordained for him by Jovah. Even more unfortunately for Gabriel, the wife-to-be has her own thoughts on the matter. Rachel has no patience for the necessities of life as the angelica, and she has even less patience for the expectations that she conform. The politics of Samaria complicates matters, and soon enough we find out that the previous Archangel, Raphael, does not want to relinquish the post. A showdown ensues, and even after that, the emotional turbulence between Rachel and Gabriel is not resolved. Shinn stretches out the suspense until the final line of the book, so readers are advised to avoid even glancing at the final page.

Shinn creates some of the most vivid characters in the business. Rachel has our sympathy from the beginning, and, as we discover it slowly, her traumatic past only evokes more and more sympathy. Rachel herself does not want sympathy of any kind, so those sympathetic feelings change into admiration and eventually a kind of wild adulation. There's a bit of wish fulfilment at play here -- Rachel has the guts to stand up to any kind of oppressive authority, something that not all of us can do, especially in the face of great pressures. Here is a wonderful comment from Gabriel: "Gabriel was never so pleased to see a meal come to an end. He had not expected it to be such an ordeal. He could not imagine why Rachel and Raphael had taken such a dislike to each other that they were willing to show their feelings in public -- although Rachel, at least, seemed willing to do verbal battle with anyone at any time" (120-121). Gabriel is also a marvellous character. He begins as a person with much the same pomposity and arrogance as Raphael, and he learns from his experiences with Rachel that he must change. To his credit, he does so in his own time and in his own way. He still makes mistakes (like not trusting Rachel about Semorrah after the Gloria), but his heart is in the right place. The two personalities of Gabriel and Rachel ensure that the social justice problems will be properly resolved, and what each has learned from the other ensures that the love story will resolved... in its own way, if not in the stereotypical way. The character of the villain of the piece, Raphael, is somewhat less interesting, but he is sufficiently slick and menacing to move the plot along. I especially liked his challenge during the Gloria -- Shinn knows how to write a satisfying showdown.

Archangel displays some excellent world-building on the part of Shinn. The geography shown on the frontispiece map of Samaria is used effectively in the course of novel, and the reader is hard-pressed to catch Shinn out on details of distance. This internal coherence helps greatly during Gabriel's epic flight later in the book, when we get a much better sense of his tremendous efforts. The other details of the setting are also used adeptly. The politics of Samaria are convincing, and I appreciated how Shinn used the social justice concerns, as voiced by Rachel, to critique the typical feudal/medieval system found here. Archangel has a few similarities to Card's Homecoming series, but I don't want to give away anything more than that. Suffice it to say that Archangel has less to add to the debate about faith and science than it first appears to -- modern readers understand the nature of Jovah immediately.

Archangel is a wonderfully balanced book, with romance and political intrigue, lovely writing and a fast-paced story. Shinn even provides some interesting commentary about love and politics, mainly through the character of Rachel. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Jovah's Angel, and to any other books that Shinn might be so gracious as to share with us.


Last modified: November 27, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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