Monday, 3 January 2011

Archangel by Sharon Shinn

In the world of Samaria, angels are the conduits between mortals and the god Jovah. They request weather changes, medicines and, in the needful event, bring forth wrathful lightning from the god. All is done through the medium of song. Once a year the peoples of Samaria come together in glorious harmony to sing the Gloria, proof to Jovah that his people live in peace. The Archangel leads the people of Samaria in the Gloria, with his angelica at his side. Archangel tells the story of Gabriel, the Archangel-to-be, who discovers that his angelica and bride-to-be is Rachel, slave girl and part of the Edori, the wandering race who believe rather heretical views about Yovah. These star-crossed lovers destined to be together did not get the memo, and their volatile relationship is the heart of this book. It is presented against a backdrop of troubles in Samaria, as the old Archangel reveals that he no longer believes in Jovah.

I have read this book at least six times. Sometimes I like to just dip in and out and read key passages - but hesitate doing this because I get pulled into the delightful world that Shinn presents, and I luxuriate in her stunning prose.

It's hard for me to be completely objective about this novel because I love it so - instead of attempting to do that I shall link you to the review of Archangel that Sarah over at Bookworm Blues wrote. She should provide some of the reasons why this might not be the book for you.

I want to present some of the reasons why I love this novel:

The first is the world of Samaria. From the different races, which feel so realistic, such as the Jansai slavers, the Edori wanderers and the Manadavvi landowners; to the masses sung to Jovah, I loved every part of it.

I find it delicious that there are so many parallels between Samaria and our own world: Gaza, Bethel, Jordana.

And, even though I am no believer myself, I loved the faith that suffused this novel - the idea of having a greater and benevolent power watching over the world.

I also enjoyed the nature of the relationship between Gabriel and Rachel. These lovers destined to be together end up hating each other, and arguing for much of the book. I think it's fabulous that Rachel doesn't just go mutely to her fate - instead, she riles against Jovah for putting her in a situation where she doesn't have any freewill. Gabriel is an arrogant angel, who believes that Rachel should accept her fate. Their lively discussions and difficulties in compromising are a highlight of Archangel.

Finally, the beautiful prose feels like silk against my ears - in particular, Shinn's ability to describe the music of the angels defies belief: "So Naomi began her part of the ballad, and Rachel waited a full count until it was time to add her descant. She closed her eyes and began to sing, quietly at first, remembering what it was like to lay her music against someone else's. They were like two hands, pressing palm to palm; [...] Then it became a loom, Naomi's voice dark and Rachel's a bright gold thread weaving a pattern into the tight fabric."

In terms of critical themes and analysis, I am going to try and provide some thoughts. Archangel uses the world of Samaria to present the idea of unquestioning faith, and ultimate power. Here we have the idea of angels who have the power to bring Jovah's wrath on the people of Samaria, and how different angels react to this - some of them feeling the weight of responsibility, while others try to seize more and more power.

The act of denying the god is also something that I found interesting, especially in a world where faith is meant to be unquestioning. The reaction of those faced with someone who didn't believe was a reflection of what can be seen in our own world: disbelief, anger, doubt. I am not someone with faith in a god, but I could see the strength and passion of those in the novel who did believe, and it almost made me feel I was missing out.

Another theme within the novel is the question of science fiction versus fantasy. Archangel won the William Crawford Award for Achievement in Fantasy, but it is often shelved within science fiction. Those who have read this novel AND the following novels in the Samaria trilogy will know that science fiction becomes a massive part of the world, but in Archangel the science fiction is pretty much non-existent. To the point where someone hoping to read a science fiction novel would feel themselves misled. Here there are vague hints towards a science fiction element: screens through which the oracles commune with the god; discs that hold recordings of early Gloria masses; and the Kiss of the god, which seems to imply a genetics system.

In conclusion, Archangel is a tremendously beautiful novel, with strong characters and a complex love story at its heart. I think that with the rise of angel-based stories within YA, this book could be picked up by readers of YA since the sex and violence is kept to a bare minimum). Those who would enjoy it include readers of Jacqueline Carey, Mercedes Lackey and Anne Bishop. Please, read it.


  1. Interesting! I'm in a whole angel place right now, so I'm intrigued. I like the idea of taking something like religions in our world and transplanting so as to free of direct issues of blasphemy, whilst still allowing an exploration of faith and doubt. Perhaps I will pick it up!

  2. So not just Mercerdes Lackey but Jacquekine Carey too? One of my other favourite writers? I guess you were right I do need to read this book. Hello wishlist, meet Archangel.

  3. It's always nice to sit back and enjoy a book you know and love already. I do this from time to time too. Sometimes I read sections too though, like the Chain Of Dogs in Deadhouse Gates, still one of the best sections of fantasy lit ever!

    What's nice about this review is that your love of the book permeates and helps me understand what the book is about and how it will affect readers. Good stuff!

  4. I haven't been a huge fan of the angel movement, but if there's anything that could get me into it, this may be it. Thanks for the insightful review!

  5. I'm also not really a fan of the angel movement, but I am definitely interested in issues of faith (and lack thereof!) and love intricate worlds that are so fully fleshed out you can almost see yourself there. I'll keep this title in mind!