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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"Principles of Angels" by Jaine Fenn


Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu:

INTRODUCTION: For some reason—the title, blurb, not doing my homework properly—I was pretty sure that “Principles of Angels” was a fantasy novel with some SF underpinnings like this year's superb “The Kingdom Beyond the Waves” by Stephen Hunt. So imagine my surprise when after reading ten pages and waiting in vain for the fantasy elements to appear, I finally realized that the novel is actually a pure science fiction adventure. And an excellent one for that matter—a rollicking ride from start to finish that leaves you wanting more…

SETTING: Sometime in the future mankind falls and rises again—with help—leaving human-occupied space as an apparently stable area of several hundred semi-autonomous systems, no two alike. One such major human polity is the League of Concord which is using three orbital cities as alternating capitals. Three kilometers up in orbit around the barren planet of Vellern, the Three Cities—while a very popular tourist destination—are also a strange environment for non-natives with their mixture of opulence and squalor, libertarian laws, and relatively strict informal boundaries of what is acceptable. For instance, the citizens get a monthly vote in which they can ostracize a politician that displeases them—though here the ostracism is final—enforced by an announced public killing by the respective city's official killers. “Principles of Angels” takes place in Khesh City which is currently serving as the capital of the Concord. Khesh City's sanctioned assassins are called Angels because they have implanted nanotech allowing them to fly and they are mostly, though not exclusively, female. The Angels are recruited from the poorer Undertow population and they usually visit the opulent Topside for duty only. They answer to Khesh City's nominal leader known as The Minister. The three orbital cities, which are about 1000 years old, are rumored to be based on powerful technology, legacy of an alien race called the Sidhe that dominated/helped humanity a long time ago and are presumed extinct. While the action takes place exclusively in Khesh City, there are hints of other alien races and the larger universe which will be explored in the next novel of the provisionally named Hidden Empire series called “Consorts of Heaven” (May 2009).

FORMAT/INFO: The
Gollancz hardcover edition I bought stands at 282 pages divided over thirty-seven numbered chapters. The narration is present tense third-person which alternates between the POV of Taro—an Undertow urchin/male prostitute of Angel descent who dreams of becoming one too despite being a boy; and a famous, somewhat na├»ve classical singer from a theocratic outworld, named Elarn Reen. Other notable characters include the Angel Nual, the strangest and most reclusive Angel who becomes entangled with Taro when he interferes by chance in her latest mission; all around bad boy Scarrion who used to be an official assassin with rival/allied orbital City Yazil; and the rich but disgraced politician Salik Vidoran and his “Screamer” bodyguard. As with “Angel”, “Screamer” denotes a literal characteristic of the Yazil official assassin corps—in this case, the ability to kill with their voice. The book is self-contained with its major plot threads resolved in a fitting, wistful and very good ending, but there are larger issues hovering in the background. And because I liked “Principles of Angels” so much, the sequel, “Consorts of Heaven”, has become an “as soon as possible" book for me…

June 19, 2008 marks the UK Hardcover/Trade Paperback publication of “Principles of Angels” via
Gollancz.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: As mentioned in the Introduction, for lack of doing my homework I was expecting a quite different book. But once the rollercoaster ride that is “Principles of Angels” starts with Taro dazed and confused by the brutal murder of his guardian aunt, Angel Malia, and him trying to survive the tough, gang organized Undertow without any powerful Angel protection—after all no one made a better pimp and protector than his Angel aunt—and then the novel shifting to the first outside view of Khesh City when Elarn Reen arrives ostensibly on a concert tour, I was completely hooked and could not put the book down.

From here, the book jumps directly into the thick of the action and the backstory—which is revealed in droplets throughout the novel—and never slows down. Taro thinks and talks as expected of an underworld boy, although his accent sometimes gets laid on a bit too thickly, but he shows himself as a survivor—vulnerable and willing to do what it takes, while also caring. “Madam” Elarn Reen, as she is called respectfully by various people, brings a powerful contrast in style—cultured though clearly “provincial” from a backward theocratic planet compared with the ultra-sophisticated Topside inhabitants of Khesh City, while her manager provides the comic relief and a data broker Elarn hires gives added context to the story.

When Salik Vidoran, the suave rich politician, saves Elarn from a mugging and possibly worse at the hands of a pair of Undertow con artists/muggers teens, with Scarrion brutally though legally killing one of the youngsters, the book goes into overdrive. Then, when Taro gets involved with Nual, the famously reclusive Angel, the direction of the plot starts to become discernible, although there are quite a few surprises along the way…

The description of Undertow gang life with its casual brutality and enforced drug use is very vivid, while the Undertow Angel bar tended by a strange sex-changing alien named Solo brings a nice touch of local color. The Topside is somewhat less well described than the Undertow, but we get to see quite a few of the highlights of the elite part of Khesh City and the vast difference between the two is starkly revealed.

Overall, the action never lets up and the pacing of the story is superb, especially considering that this is a debut novel. The characters, while relatively stereotypical, develop somewhat, but that's just extra since “Principles of Angels” is so energetic and gripping. Though quite short at under 300 pages, “Principles of Angels” packs quite a punch and will leave you breathless and gasping for more…

One of the most pleasant surprises for me this year, “Principles of Angels” is highly, highly recommended.

1 comments:

Calibandar said...

I've read the first few chapters of this and found the main character ( a male whore) to be wholy uninteresting. I never picked it up again.

Calibandar

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