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Jovah's Angel, Sharon Shinn, Ace, 1998, 358 pp.
Sequels, sequels. What a strange species. What do they mean? Why do writers produce them? Why do readers want them? They are everywhere, but are they worth the time and effort and money? Most movies these days seem to be created with sequels in mind, and science fiction in print seems no less eager to create some kind of franchise. For a writer, writing a sequel might represent less work or a way to capitalize on something that has been proven to work. For readers, reading a sequel might be a way of re-living an experience that was particularly entertaining or worthwhile. And we all know that Hollywood produces so many sequels because it is imaginatively bankrupt, right? That common accusation has a logical corollary, of course, that states that any sequel is bankrupt, whether of imagination or daring or creativity or whatever the spark that leads to the conception of a new work of art. I would have to say that sequels differ as much in quality and vision as the originals. That statement must be balanced against another: I can only think of a handful of sequels that were notable improvements on the original. My short list of such things in science fiction would include Speaker for the Dead and Marooned in Realtime. And now, with great satisfaction, I can add another book to that esteemed handful of titles: Shinn's Jovah's Angel.
Shinn's original book, Archangel, was a lovely mix of disparate elements, from romance to a pseudo-medieval setting to a bit of social justice. I started out reading that book as a skeptic, but that didn't last long as the pages flew past and I was hooked by narrative strategies that don't usually affect me. The typical romance story arc does almost nothing for me, but Shinn balanced a moving love story with some social justice and no small amount of feminist sensibility. My expectations were raised considerably whenever I thought of the possibility of another book by Shinn, and I admit to some worry when I found out she was writing a sequel, Jovah's Angel.
Fortunately, there was no need for anxiety. Shinn has created a sequel worthy of the original and worthy in its own regard. Many of the themes first examined in Archangel are worked out more fully here, with deeper implications and a keen eye for parallels to our own society. Interesting characters, personal and political conflict, love, death, spaceships... it's all here.
Jovah's Angel begins with a tragedy in the Prologue. Delilah is the current Archangel. Arrogant in her flying power, she attempts a long journey amidst a storm and crashes to the earth. One wing broken, she can no longer be Archangel and the search for a replacement is on. The Oracles consult Jovah, and he names the angel Alleluia, known as Alleya. But Alleya is somewhat more retiring than Delilah, and none of the contestants in the ongoing political power struggles take Alleya seriously. At first. The story gets complicated by two young men, Caleb and Noah. Noah is an Edori, a tribe of wanderers who do not worship Jovah in the same way as the other, more "respectable" elements of society. Noah is also in love with a singer known as Lilah, a former angel with a broken wing. Caleb, Noah's friend, is an inventor, and he is becoming fast friends with Alleya. Unfortunately for whatever romantic yearnings exist between Caleb and Alleya, Jovah has given a very precise definition of who will be the official husband of the Archangel, and Caleb does not seem to fit. And to make matters worse, Jovah does not always hear the intercession of the angels lately.
Once again, Shinn gives us some remarkable characters. The main character, Alleya, is different in almost every respect than the protagonist of the first book, Rachel. But both women share the rather intense trait known as spunk or gumption. Both women also refuse to accept any exterior strictures on their love lives, although the circumstances differ widely in each case. Caleb is an interesting person, curious to a fault, and busy asking many of the questions that have become habitual in our own civilization. The description of the mechanical car that Caleb builds, known as the Beast, is amusing, as is the typical reaction of the people in this world. The relationship between Lilah and Noah is entirely believable and more than a little sad for most of its duration. Yes, the book has a happy ending and everything gets resolved (ie, everyone gets married to the right mate), but the fun is in the ride. Shinn manages to overcome the predictability of the material (after all the set-up, I wasn't expecting any of the four main characters to die, although sometimes the subplot in a happy romance ends tragically) by giving us some wonderful characters.
Shinn utilizes her setting efficiently. One hundred and fifty years have passed since the events of Archangel, and the world has changed palpably, as is only appropriate. Some things have improved -- both Delilah and Alleya are accepted as Archangels, while that might not have been the case earlier. Other problems have gotten worse, some of them generated by the onset of capitalism. For example, Alleya has to deal with the abuse of child labour and she arrives at a novel solution. Whether that solution would actually work is another question altogether. And that solution is definitely unpopular with the powerful elite. However, since Alleya is essentially the leader of a theocracy, her word is final law. Democracy has not yet arrived here; an enlightened monarch apparently suffices.
None of these ways of describing the system of government in Jovah's Angel quite fits -- none of the analogues in our history were guided by a benevolent, almost-omnipotent and almost-omniscient computer housed in an orbiting spacecraft. As a meditation on issues of faith, Jovah's Angel suffers from the same problem as Archangel: the issue is loaded against any version of faith, because the reader immediately assumes superiority over these poor deluded saps who think Jovah is a deity. Alleya undergoes an extreme process of re-evaluation of everything she believed to be true when she teleports aboard the spaceship and begins conversing with Jovah there. As a story, it gives us something worthwhile to read, but much of the religious trappings (fallen angel, the names, and so on) become just that, trappings or atmosphere. That's too bad, because the book could have used some bolstering in this solitary weak area.
Last modified: February 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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