Jovah's Angel, by Sharon Shinn

>> Friday, November 10, 2006

Sometimes when I read the first book in a series and its an absolutely perfect read, I can be a bit hesitant about reading the next installments. It's basically a matter of being afraid something about the other book will diminish the first one for me, that the characters or universe will lose their freshness. Silly, isn't it? But it was the reason it took me almost 5 years to read book 2 of the In Death series after loving Naked in Death.

Strangely enough, this didn't happen with Sharon Shinn's Samaria series. After being blown away by Archangel (my first A+ of the year, yay!), I could hardly keep myself from starting Jovah's Angel immediately.

It is 150 years since "Archangel". Great storms and floods have swept down upon the land. And even the splendid voices of the angels--raised in supplication--cannot reach the god Jovah.
WARNING!: JA will make you look at the events in Archangel in a completely different way, so if you haven't read the first book yet, don't read this review. And what are you waiting for? Go read Archangel now!

In a way, it's a good thing that I didn't know how much JA would stand everything on its head, because the reasoning I describe above might have kept me from a truly excellent book. An A.

When Archangel Delilah falls during a foolhardy night-time flight and breaks her wing, Jovah decrees she can't serve as Archangel if she cannot fly, and names the angel Alleluia to take her place. No one is more surprised than Alleluia herself. A studious, quiet young woman, she has neither the inclination nor the experience to take on such a job. But the god has spoken, and he must be obeyed, so the change takes place.

But it's very definitely not a good time for such a change. It's some 150 years after the events in Archangel, and Samarian weather has been turning more and more unpredictable lately. The storms and draughts are coming more frequently, and the angels' prayers for changes in the weather are not being answered by Jovah. This coincides with what seems to be a generalized breakdown in the original settler technological appliances. The equipment in the music rooms in the angel holds, for instance, has began to break down, and since no one knows how it works, this is a problem. Plus, as always in Samaria, there's friction between the various groups. All this requires strong, savvy leadership, but can Alleluia provide it?

There's no villain driving the action here, like the Archangel Raphael did in Archangel. The story mainly follows Alleluia as she does her new job the best she can, concentrating on several tasks which end up being very much related: trying to find out why Jovah isn't listening any more, trying to see if she can get the failing machines repaired and trying to find the man who should be the Angelico and stand by her to sing the Gloria. To all this Jovah says "find the son of Jeremiah", a cryptic remark indeed. But with the help of a Luminaux engineer called Caleb Augustus, Alleluia makes very surprising progress in her tasks.

Like Archangel, this is excellent fantasy and just as excellent romance... two romances for the price of one, BTW. We get the slowly developing relationship between devout Alleluia and the agnostic Caleb Augustus, and we also follow the fallen Archangel, Delilah, as she adapts (mostly badly) to her new status and develops a fondness for another engineer, the Edori Noah.

Noah was a bit featureless, compared to the other three, but Alleluia, Caleb and Delilah were strong enough characters that this didn't really matter all that much to me. I especially loved Delilah, because I have a fondness for tortured female characters, but watching Alleluia and Caleb dance around each other was just lovely. What I loved the most was how perfectly suited they were to each other, despite their superficial differences. Both were people who needed to get to the bottom of things, to discover how they work. It was more obvious in Caleb's case, because he was such a tinkerer and was always fooling around with objects and machines, but Alleluia was just as curious, only in an intellectual way.

And this leads us to one of the things I loved best about JA: the huge, mind-blowing revelations about the history of Samaria that Alleluia and Caleb somehow discover. I can't say they were really such a surprise, by the time I got there, because we start getting hints right from the beginning of the book, when we see the oracle communicating with Jovah through an "interface". But still, this is such huge stuff, that even though my mind did instinctively reach conclusions that were in the right direction (not the exact nature of what was happening, that would have been impossible), I didn't quite believe Shinn would actually dare do this.

But she did, and I thought the results were wonderful. At least, I thought they were. I'm sure for some people what happens here will somehow make the series lose some of its magic. I'd go as far as to agree that the sense of mystery we got in Archangel can't really survive these revelations (and this is the reason why I insisted people should read that book without finding out anything about this), but for me, the magic is intact.

I thought Shinn dealt brilliantly with the implications these discoveries would have on faith, such an important thing for Samarians, especially how it affected people so different in this respect as Alleluia and Caleb. It's not a facile, simplistic reaction, and I loved the book all the more for it.

Ok, this review is already getting over-long, so a couple more comments and I'm done. First: I was fascinated by Shinn's portrayal of the changes that have taken place in Samarian society since we last saw it. Among other things, we see an early industrial revolution, and that the Edori have mostly lost their nomadic way of life. They've been herded inside sanctuaries, mostly worthless land, which doesn't keep the other Samarian groups from trying to take some away from them. For this reason, the Edori's longtime dream of going to Ysral, their mythic promised land, is more alive than ever, and we see some very interesting steps being taken.

We also see in detail some places we didn't find out much about in Archangel, like the oracles and Luminaux, both of which sound incredible.

This was a wonderfully rich, satisfying book. I'm so happy I'm finally reading this series!


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