Archangel, by Sharon Shinn

>> Wednesday, October 18, 2006

book coverIt's been a busy couple of days, so sorry for the lack of posts. But when I got back to writing, I wrote. This is probably much too long, but I just couldn't stop writing!

I read Sharon Shinn for the first time a couple of years ago, when, in a now-defunct reading group I belonged to, her Heart of Gold was set as the book of the month. It was an excellent read, and I meant to read more by Shinn as soon as I could. I checked out a couple of reviews, saw that her first Samaria book, Archangel, sounded great and got it, but then didn't pick it up immediately when it arrived, and it's languished in my TBR ever since. I finally picked it up when at they had a Sharon Shinn week and that of Archangel was one of the first reviews posted. It really was a wonderful review; it made me wild to read the book!

BTW, you romance readers who are hesitant about trying Shinn for fear of unhappy endings, etc., go read this interview, also posted at That should put your minds at ease ;-)

And so it came to pass...

Through science, faith, and force of will, the Harmonics carved out for themselves a society that they conceived of as perfect. Diverse peoples held together by respect for each other and the prospect of swift punishment. Angels to guard the mortals and mystics to guard the forbidden knowledge. Jehovah to watch over them all...

An age of corruption has come over the land, threatening peace and placing the Samarians in grave danger. Their only hope lies in the crowning of a new Archangel. The oracles have chosen Gabriel, and further decreed that he must first wed a mortal, Rachel. It is his destiny and hers. And Gabriel is certain that she will greet the news of her betrothal with enthusiasm, and a devotion to duty equal to his own.

Rachel, however, has other plans...
Archangel is my first A+ of the year. The first! This time last year I had 6, 2 of new books, plus 4 of rereads (which included the entire Harry Potter series, in preparation for the release of book #6). Not that 2006 has been a bad reading year for me... I mean, I have plenty of A's and A-'s already, but I just hadn't found any really perfect books. Until now, that is.

Archangel takes place in Samaria, a world in very close contact with its god, Jovah. Among mortal men live angels, who act as go-betweens between them and Jovah. If the weather is bad and crops are threatened, if there is a plague in the village and they need medicine, if there is famine and they need food, mortals ask the angels to intercede with Jovah -and Jovah usually responds.

These angels are basically normal men and women, only they have wings, which allow them to take to the heavens and speak to Jovah from closer, helping them to be heard. They also have especially beautiful voices, which please Jovah and make him more likely to grant what they're asking. But other than those physical differences (and a couple of trifling details, like colder blood, which helps them tolerate flying so high), there's not that much difference between angels and mortals. Shinn's angels aren't vapid, otherwordly beings; their personalities and wants and needs are much the same as those of regular humans.

So, after our little introduction, on to the story. Every 20 years, the Archangel (the leader of the angels and, in effect, the ruler of all Samaria) changes in accordance to what Jovah orders through his oracles. The story starts as the Archangel Raphael's term is drawing to a close, and Gabriel is getting ready to ascend.

It's been known for many years that Gabriel would replace Raphael, so he's been preparing ever since, and has some very definite ideas about what he wants to accomplish during his term as Archangel. Gabriel isn't too happy with the way Raphael has carried out his duties, allowing such things as the enslavement of the Edori, a group of nomad tribes, by the Jansai, and not paying much attention to the pleas of ordinary, not powerful people.

But as much as Gabriel has been preparing for his upcoming role, there's one key thing he's been postponing, and that's marriage. One of the Archangel's main responsibilities is to lead the Gloria with his wife, the Angelica (or, if the Archangel is female, the Angelico, her husband).

The Gloria is a gathering of all Samarian people, where they sing to Jovah in harmony. If it doesn't happen on the day prescribed, it is said tragedy will strike. On the first day Jovah will strike and destroy the Galo mountains, then on the second, if the Gloria still hasn't been sung, he will destroy the city on the river, and on the third day, if the situation remains the same, he will destroy the entire world.

See why it's important for Gabriel to find the Angelica determined for him by Jovah? As crucial as this matter is, though, Gabriel doesn't really think leaving it so late is excessively risky. After all, no woman in Samaria could dream of a higher honour than to become the Angelica, so it should all be pretty straightforward. Go to the oracle, ask Jovah the name, break the glad news to the fortunate chosen woman and get married. Simple.

But it's one rude shock after the other for Gabriel. First, the oracle names Rachel, a woman who isn't the daughter of a wealthy, upper-class family, as he expected, but a girl from the hills. And then, when he goes to seek her at the village where she was born, Gabriel finds it razed to the ground. He searches and searches for her, but no luck. Until he finds her quite by chance, and in the least likely place.

After her village was destroyed, the very young Rachel joined a tribe of Edori who were passing by and grew up with them. But the marauding Jansai attacked her adoptive family and enslaved the survivors, so she has spent the last 5 years as a slave girl in Semorrah, where Gabriel finds her when he attends the wedding of the lady of the house and Rachel is assigned to build the fire in his room.

But seeing that his bride-to-be has been a slave isn't the rudest shock Gabriel receives... no, it's the fact that Rachel doesn't want the honour of being his wife. Rachel wants freedom. She's about to be set free by her mistress when Gabriel finds her, so to her, his proposal isn't a wonderful opportunity, it's simply the ruin of her cherished new plans. Still, finding herself with no other options, Rachel agrees to a marriage of convenience.

Obviously, given the circumstances, Gabriel and Rachel's relationship isn't smooth. She resents him and the whole situation, and the somewhat arrogant Gabriel finds it difficult to deal with this. But as the events around them build up for potential tragedy, and it becomes clear that Gabriel's accesion to the Archangel post won't be as smooth as it should be, their relationship grows.

As I said, I started this one with very high hopes, and not only did it fulfill those hopes from the very beginning, as the book progressed I got more and more excited about it. The characters! The romance! The plot! The setting! The world-building! Everything was simply perfect.

I loved how Shinn wrote Gabriel and Rachel, not because they were so likeable and perfect, but because they were not. These two are good and honourable people, but this doesn't mean they are always easy to live with, or even to like.

Rachel is strong and very stubborn, and the pressure she's under (to marry Gabriel, to become the perfect Angelica, to sing at the Gloria and thus preserve the whole world... it piles on and on) brings this out. She's not above being a bit resentful, but you totally understand her. She's spent a long time without control of her life, and just when she's about to get some, her whole destiny's taken over by Gabriel. It's no wonder she resists it.

As for Gabriel, he's as stubborn as Rachel, and crosses the line between proud and arrogant quite a few times. But given the responsibilities the man has and the difficulties he's facing, you also understand why he is the way he is. His rigidness and arrogance are born from his wanting to be the best Archangel possible and do the best by his people, not from any power-hungry impulses.

Their marriage at first brings out the worse in each of them, but the very gradual process of their falling in love (a subtle but extremely romantic process) allows them to see their faults and rise above them, becoming even more heroic.

Right until I started writing the first draft of this review, I was going with an A, not an A+, but then, when I was getting ready to write my reason, how I would have liked to have had a bit more romance, maybe for Rachel and Gabriel to have spent a little bit more time together, I realized that was reflex speaking. In fact, this aspect was perfect, too. I really can't think of how this romance could be improved, especially with that absolutely perfect ending! So that's my A+ there :-)

I was just as captivated by Samaria itself as I was by Gabriel and Rachel's story. Shinn's descriptions are wonderfully vivid, and the world she portrays is one that is just beautiful. She takes us everywhere, from the Eyrie, where Gabriel's host of angels live, to Windy Point, home to Raphael and as different from the Eyrie as Raphael is from Gabriel, from the cities to the countryside, I could see everything in my mind. I could even hear the singing, and I'm not a musical person!

Unmistakably, there are quite a few biblical references. There's a lot in Archangel that is reminiscent of the Bible and the Middle East: places, stories, people... But I consciously tried to ignore the paralells.

For one thing, I don't know enough of the Bible to trust myself to be drawing the right paralells. Is Semorrah a combination of Sodom and Gomorrah? The first angelica, Hagar, how is she related to the biblical figure of the same name? I would have been puzzling over a thousand of those questions, especially since most characters have Old Testament-sounding names, names I've heard of, but whose owners I don't *really* know all that much about.

[[ETA: when I finished writing this, I went to read the review at AAR (what can I say, I'm obsessed!) and the reviewer mentions seeing echoes of the biblical stories of Saul and David, Rachel and Leah, Esther, Judas and Lucifer. Now I'm a bit intrigued!]]

For another thing, in a way, I actually prefered not to know if there was a message here, if the Jansai or the Edori would actually correspond to a particular Middle East people. It was less distracting that way, and it allowed me to better appreciate the story for what it was and not feel as if I was being preached to (I'm NOT not saying that Shinn was preaching, simply that I don't know if she was, and I prefer it that way).

Another thing I found interesting was Shinn's treatment of the subject of faith. As an agnostic, someone without faith myself, maybe I should have felt offended by the attitude felt towards those who didn't believe, either. But in this particular universe, with the god so near and the effects of his actions so clear and immediate, it did seem as if those who professed not to believe did so, not because of a honest loss of faith, but, if it makes sense, because they wanted to do certain things, and since believing in a god who wanted them to live in harmony with their fellow man was inconvenient, they'd convinced themselves they didn't believe.

Faith here seems to be the only way all these diverse groups, all with different cultures and agendas, can live together in a certain harmony. It's a pessimistic view of humanity, actually, as it seems to say that the only way to keep people from preying on one another is to have the threat of a punishment from the god hanging over them. Pessimistic, but I'm afraid it's a view I have to agree with. On a more positive note, however, this faith doesn't just act as a deterrent for those ugly impulses, it also brings out the good in people, as symbolized in the beautiful singing.

I mentioned the very romantic ending above, but it's not just the resolution of the love story that's great, it's the whole finale. There's a huge climax, one of epic proportions, and for some reason, this is something I always enjoy. It was especially well done here.

A special mention should be made of the writing. I did talk about how I loved the descriptions, but that wasn't all that was good. The dialogue is amazing, and the writing flows flawlessly. There's even something that probably would have frustrated me and brought the flow to a grinding halt in a book by a less talented author, but worked perfectly here. We see the action from one of the protagonists' POV up until a certain climactic moment. Then, rather than see what happens next, we go back and see the events leading up to that moment again, but from the other protagonist's POV. This is something Shinn did in Heart of Gold, too, but while I was a bit ambivalent about it there, here, I loved it. Of course, I really wanted to know what was going to happen, but I liked seeing those things from another perspective. And it worked because for the most part, we weren't simply reading the same scene from a different character's POV, but seeing what they were doing when they were not with the other, as they often weren't.

I've been trying to figure out what the order for reading the rest of the books should be, because, apparently, the one which takes place right after this one, and with some of the same characters, was the last one written, Angel Seeker. In her interview at, however, Shinn says she always thought they should be read as they were published, even though many people have said it was better in chronological order. I'm going to follow the author's advice, then, and go with Jovah's Angel.

But before I finish this review, I can't help but speculate a bit about what's going on here. I'm going to write this as a spoiler, even though I'm probably completely wrong and it's got nothing to do with what's actually happening (and thus wouldn't really be a spoiler), so you know what to do:

(((I'm writing this when I've already read the first couple of chapters of Jovah's Angel, and between a certain little reference about an "interface" being used by the oracles to comunicate with Jovah, those Kisses they've got in their arms that remind me so much of implanted microchips, and the very distinct impression of something staged that I got from the apocalyptic Gloria, I get a feeling that's a cross between The Truman Show and The Village. I don't know, I might be wrong, but I won't be surprised if it turns out to be something of this sort.)))


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