Angelica, by Sharon Shinn

>> Wednesday, February 21, 2007

All three books in Sharon Shinn's Samaria trilogy rated A grades from me last year. Angelica is a bit of an add-on to the series, written some 5 years after the publication of the third book, The Alleluia Files, but taking place a couple of hundred years before the entire trilogy.

book coverTwo hundred years ago, in order to keep the peace in Samaria, the god Jovah created a legion of land-dwelling angels, led by an appointed Archangel. Now, Jovah has a new appointee: Archangel Gaaron. And for his life-mate, his Angelica, Jovah has chosen a woman named Susannah. With trepidation, she bows to the will of Jovah and an unspoken affection slowly develops between the two.

But there is a terrible threat besetting the land-black-clad strangers who call fire down from the sky, leaving death and destruction in their wake. And the true hearts of Archangel and Angelica may never be known, as the future of the planet hangs in the balance...
One of the things I like best about these Samaria books are how I'm able to really sink into them. They're long, but I never feel in a hurry to get to the end. On the contrary, when the stack of pages to my right starts getting smaller and smaller, I start getting depressed, because I just don't want to leave this world. Angelica was no exception. An A-.

This is a very romantic book, almost as romantic as Archangel. In fact, it starts in a way that reflects Archangel very strongly. A few months before the Gloria and the change in archangels, the archangel-elect (currently the leader of the Eyrie hold) goes to the oracle and asks for the god's instructions with regards to chosing a wife. Jovah gives him a shock with his answer: the angelica is not to be the expected upper class, very appropriate heiress. In fact, just as Rachel in Archangel, it turns out the angelica-to-be has spent most of her life with the Edori. And unlike Rachel, Susannah actually is an Edori.

Gaaron is not one to question the god's will, and so he goes in search of his angelica. And when he finds her, another shock: she already has a lover, one she loves very much. But when Gaaron arrives, Susannah and Dathan are in the middle of a fight, and so when she hears the god's pronouncement, Susannah allows herself to be stolen away by Gaaron.

Angelica deals with Susannah's struggle to get used to a way of life very different to the one she's known all her life, and with the increasing love developing between her and Gaaron. But in addition to this, there's a strong outside plot. All's not well in Samaria. Very suddenly, isolated farms and travelling caravans have began to be found burnt to a crisp, burnt by a fire so hot and all-consuming that no one manages to get away. Nothing that is known in Samaria could produce such results. And when more information about what's happening is discovered, Samarians are even more baffled. They seem to be under attack by black-clad invaders who have incredibly destructive weapons, sticks which they point at targets and which send out the incredibly hot fire. No one knows who they are and what they want, and much less how to stop them, especially since one of the tenets of Samarian society is the rejection of technology, especially technology applied to weapons.

I mentioned Angelica is almost as wonderfully romantic as Archangel was, but as much as their initial circumstances ressemble those of Rachel and Gabriel (and even though Gaaron's full name is actually Gabriel Aaron), Susannah and Gaaron couldn't be more different.

Where Rachel was defiant and refused to settle into her new life, Susannah is resigned almost from the first to the fact that she will never again be able to live the Edori life. She's very realistic about her prospects, and from the first, does all she can to make a good life for herself, even while accepting that she might not be completely happy. All she needs, she tells herself, is contentment, and she's positive that she might find it in the Eyrie.

As for Gaaron, he's nothing like the arrogant, showy Gabriel. Gaaron is a really sweet guy, and one's who's very unsure about himself. He's always considered himself the dull one, the uninteresting one, the one everyone comes to for help when they have a problem, but not the one they come to when they want to have a good time. The circumstances surrounding his relationship with Susannah exacerbate the problem. He's knows that that Susannah was in love with a charming, fun man when he came to her bearing the god's command that she marry him. And compared to Dathan, Gaaron feels even more boring and humdrum. He doesn't see how Susannah, this woman he's increasingly fascinated by, could ever love him.

And to be fair, Susannah's first reactions are in that vein. She really doesn't feel she could love a staid, solid man, when what she loves so much about Dathan is precisely his charm and light-heartedness. But this changes with time, as she gets to know Gaaron better and starts seeing the beauty of his solidness and trustworthiness. And when she comes to the realization that what she feels for Gaaron is love, it's something we readers were able to see even before she understood it.

Most of the book follows Gaaron and Susannah, telling their story in Shinn's very characteristic way (follow one character until a turning point, then go back and follow the other until he or she reaches that same turning point), but there's also a thread there, told in the same way, following Miriam, Gaaron's young mortal (not angel, that is) sister.

Miriam is a difficult character. Gaaron loves her very much, but it's pretty much impossible for him to do the right thing with her, not because of any failure in him, but because Miriam's upbringing, with their cold, hard father, means that she's determined to make trouble and not accept that her brother loves her and wants the best for her. In the first parts of the book, she lives at the Eyrie with Gaaron and then Susannah, but later in the book, she ends up joining Susannah's Edori tribe. While she's with them, there's an incident with the invaders which results in one of them being injured and taken in as a prisoner/guest by the Edori. Miriam takes this man under her wing, and a relationship develops between the two.

I confess at first I thought Miriam a spoiled, self-centred brat. A very realistic one, yes: I mean, I had to laugh at some of her thoughts, the way she did things like run away to join the Edori, and revel in the thought that when Gaaron and Susannah found her missing, they'd be worried and they'd be sorry they treated her badly. Such a typical teenage thought that. But I have little patience for that kind of thing, and I resented having to spend time with the little twit. The first sections devoted to her, I kept wishing we could go back to reading about Gaaron and Susannah.

But gradually, by living the hard Edori life, and in a way in which you really saw how the evolution would happen, the brat grew up and gave way to a more mature woman. There was some slight backsliding in the end, but it was more an instinctive reaction to being again with the people who'd always inspired the more brattish behaviour, and when made to see what she was doing, Miriam did step back into maturity. That made her growth even more evident, IMO.

Her interactions with Jossis, the invader, end up being among the best parts of the book. I got a kick out of seeing their evolving communication, and had fun seeing how they carefully and gradually were able to get their meanings across. It helps that Jossis' story is a fascinating one, and one I, as a reader, understood much better than Miriam did.

And this brings me to what's going on with these invaders: who they are and what they want. Before I started this series, I remember being a bit confused about in which order I should go. Chronological or publication order? If chronological, Angelica would have gone first, and I'm really glad I didn't go with that option. The outside events in Angelica don't give any spoilers for Archangel, but if I hadn't read those three books first, I would have ended up almost as much in the dark as the characters here end up. I actually enjoyed that though we Samaria-savvy readers were pretty much sure of what must be happening, the characters (with the exception of the oracle) are not. I would probably guess that I'd be irritated by something like this, but it works perfectly.

*sigh* Only one more full-length book and one short story left that are set in Samaria. It depresses me a little to think of it.

PS - A little Easter egg: remember in The Alleluia Files, the romance novel Tamar read with great pleasure while recovering in Semorrah? Susannah the Stolen? Guess who that was about?


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