Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse

Rating: 2 stars
Length: Somehow both cramped and repetitive (269 pages)
Publication: May 6, 2008 from Roc
Premise: The angel Remiel walked away from his angelic nature after the war in heaven, eventually becoming a private investigator called Remy Chandler. He fell in love with Madeline, a mortal woman, and has been unhappily dealing with her aging and inevitable death when his former angelic comrades track him down. The five scrolls that can start the apocalypse have gone missing, the Angel of Death isn't doing his job, and only Remy can track him down and avert the end of the world.
Warnings: Some of the violence can be gory or disturbing, but as a whole this is pretty mild.
Recommendation: Give this one a miss unless you're absolutely desperate for something with an angelic protagonist-- even then, you can probably find something better.

What makes this one conceptually fun: 

Remy has been keeping his angelic powers bottled up for thousands of years, but they still fight against the restraint that he imposes, and some of them are impossible to turn off. He can always hear the language of animals and speak in ways that they understand-- since he talks with Marlowe, his dog, that's too handy for him to even want to give up. Drawing on his angelic strength or speed, even to save his own life, means that he has to keep fighting to stop it from burning away the mortal shell. He exists in a limbo, neither serving God wholeheartedly in the way that he used to nor fallen and condemned like the angels who originally sided with Lucifer. These sources of tension keep him from staying happy for too long, especially since his beloved mortal wife, Madeline, is edging closer to death. They had a good and ordinary life together, but as soon as she's gone he'll be alone in the world again, hiding his secret from almost everyone. Little details really help drive that home; when he goes to visit Madeline in the nursing home, he's officially visiting his mother because the age gap would be obvious immediately and raise questions. Remy is very much an outsider from many different groups, and the forward march of bleak loneliness is probably the most convincing part of the book.

The other angels are an interestingly mixed bag, often radiating power without goodness. The ones who are still unfallen seem unsettling, peering suspiciously at the trappings of mortal life in a manner reminiscent of Pratchett's Auditors. Then there are the Grigori, who were supposed to watch over humanity but instead fell victim to the temptation to give too much knowledge, teaching humanity about war and weapons and dooming themselves to eternal banishment from heaven. The Black Choir makes an interesting third camp: they are denied a place in heaven and hell for trying to play both sides in that ancient war, and are ready to do anything necessary to try to force their way back into heaven....even try to cause the end of the world. The heaven flashbacks unify that longing to go home: they can feel a touch flat in places, but they're unquestionably vivid. Even when Remiel is looking across a field of bloody corpses, there's a savage beauty to the scene that explains why even the most lost are fighting to come home and earn God's favor, even if the means to that end are terrible.

Few of the characters except for Remy get the amount of pagetime that they would need to be fully realized, but Sniegoski crafts the raw ideas brilliantly. Lazarus, for example, is the biblical figure who was resurrected by Christ, but that gift came with a curse-- once he'd been brought back to life, he couldn't die and find rest in either heaven or hell. He keeps a close eye on supernatural information in the hope that he'll find a way to die, and tries to kill himself as often as possible to see if it'll take for real one day. He's used to the world, but in a very different way from Remy; Remy wants to experience life and get close to humanity, God's chosen children, while Lazarus hates it all and just wants to escape. Francis may be even better. He's a former warrior angel who sided with the Morningstar and then asked for God's mercy, which took the form of appointing him to watch the gates between the earthly places and hell. He wants to prove himself and earn God's forgiveness, but he also works as an assassin and builds up weaponry that he can use to shoot angels, so he doesn't want forgiveness quite badly enough to give up being himself. Both characters slide all over the moral spectrum, making them a refreshing contrast to Remy's stubborn virtue.

The red pen: 

The structure of the novel feels a little choppy, especially because it's so short. Remy experiences many flashbacks and dream sequences, but it seems like they all serve similar purposes. The flashbacks drive home how brutal the war in heaven was and why he left, while the dreams are all foreboding symbolism about the Four Horsemen coming closer and closer to destroying the world. These get repetitive very quickly, as do all of the scenes with Israfil, the Angel of Death. He followed in Remy's footsteps and lived a human life, but he moved himself into an existing human body and become too emotionally involved, going far enough to involve himself with a mortal woman while still carrying out his tasks-- the sadness gets to him, and he keeps angsting over what right he has to kill people. It could have been great, but he spends the whole climax of the book moaning about this in such a dull fashion that I found myself rooting for the apocalypse. There's also a weird gap in the middle of the climax: Sniegoski writes through the eyes of other characters for the first time in the book. We see a brief segment from Francis (who is great absolutely all the time, especially here), glimpses of Madeline, and even a segment from the bloody dog.

The visits to Madeline in the hospital have the same repetitive problem. The conflict between restoring balance to the world and spending a little more precious time with his wife should have been so compelling, but it just....wasn't. Madeline is saintly and boring and just wants Remy to do the right thing, while Remy agrees with her and never even tries to use some illicit angelic power to extend her life or heal her. It's a shame on both counts, since Remy has been on earth for roughly six thousand years and hasn't really been attached to anyone but Madeline; dreams and flashbacks could have added so much richness to the agony of indecision. Madeline herself could have been great; she's kind and loving, but she's also face to face with her own death and doesn't seem to struggle with that fact at all. She doesn't cry, protest, try to ask for more life, or even speak sharply to Remy over hiding information from her; she's a plaster saint, not a person.

Unfortunately, some of the best seeds of characters never get to do anything interesting. The worst offender is almost certainly Mulvehill, Remy's contact in the police force. He once saw Remy's face during a brush with death, making him the only mortal besides Madeline who understands part of Remy's secret. Apart from a few brief conversations about how weird everything is and how nervous the undying people are making him, he doesn't really do anything. He feels more like window dressing than an actual person, which is incredibly sad given how interesting he could be. Remy's dog Marlowe had a lot of potential, but he tends to communicate in choppy little sentences about the same things over and over to provide a sounding board and a connection to humanity that will persist once Madeline dies. Animal speech is such a cool power in so very many books, but there's just no depth to it here: no thorough glimpses of how animals see humanity or understand angelic nature, no independent thought, and not even many glimpses of animals who aren't Remy's own dog.

And now we come to the really obnoxious cheap shots, because they straight-up don't make sense for an angel who is thousands of years old. Remy feels so saintly that it's impossible to really like him anyway, but the cheap shots destroyed my ability to take his millennia of life seriously. When he's describing the Grigori, he laments the way that they taught humanity how to make weapons before veering sideways: "But the Watchers didn't stop there, the dumb [SOBs] had actually introduced the joys of jewelry and makeup to the early females." Leaving aside the enormous plot holes of how these angels knew that those things were going to exist when there are no female-appearing angels anywhere at all, this is....really not stated in a frivolous enough tone to come off as a joke, and incredibly immature coming from someone whose now-dying wife probably enjoyed things like jewelry and makeup sometimes. It felt much like his later grumbling about cats. Remy obviously isn't a cat person, but there's one cat belonging to a female client, and every time it moves or mews in its language or reacts to danger, Remy takes the opportunity to be obnoxious about it. Cats are hungry all the time, whiny, always having the worst attitudes, oblivious to important things, egocentric, and only out for themselves. This is based on a sample size of exactly one cat and feels, like the other instance, oddly serious in a way that feels edges into author voice-over.

These cheap shots could have been all right as isolated incidents, but the writing is also somewhat sexist in general. There is not a single well-rounded female character in this entire book. Let's take a look at the cast. Madeline, Remy's wife, is dull beyond belief and literally takes no action beyond walking to look out the window. Casey, the mortal woman who was unknowingly dating Israfil, does little beyond shriek and drop off neatly-wrapped clues. Ashley the teenage dog-sitter is irresponsible enough to let a stranger into Remy's house and then leave her alone there. Joan, a nurse at Madeline's do I put this. Black characters in fiction are a great step forward, but stereotypically black characters get very tacky very quickly, especially when those characters are the only ones to have exaggeratedly accented dialogue and get gems of lines like "You are a crazy white boy, you know that?" Joan exists to fake-flirt with Remy and be a cheap token at the nursing home. That's literally every woman in the book. This novel has at least three mysterious groups of angels, supernatural characters like Lazarus, characters with defined traits and quirks (oh, Francis, why were you not the star here?), and not a single interesting female or female-seeing person in the lot.

All in all, A Kiss Before the Apocalype is really mediocre. Not many individual elements stand out as annoying, but there's just not enough tension, suspense, or vivid characterization for me to really care-- all of the emotions we see are told instead of shown, so why bother to feel invested in these people? The apocalypse has never seemed quite so dull before, or quite so welcome in a world full of cardboard characters.

Prospects: There are currently four novels in this series, the most recent being In the House of the Wicked, which was released earlier this month.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman explores the oncoming apocalypse roughly a thousand times better than A Kiss Before the Apocalypse does. It's also hilarious and moving and odd; give it a try whether or not you liked this one, honestly.
~I didn't love The Taken, but it moved more smoothly than this one did with an angelic P.I. and a mortal in a relationship.
~For more about Death leaving his post and things going horribly wrong, try Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. No private investigators, but the musings on humanity and mortality and compassion are really are the snarky footnotes.

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