Thursday, June 6, 2013

Angelology

Fair warning that this review has gotten a little....emphatic down in the red pen section. This is far from the worst book I've ever read, but finishing it was a Sisyphean uphill battle wherein I was Sisyphus and the rock was yet another exposition-laden passage that made absolutely no sense.


Rating: 2 stars
Length: Exceedingly long (480 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: March 9, 2010 from Viking Press
Premise: Sister Evangeline has been living peacefully in St. Rose Convent for years, trying to find a quiet life and forget the strange happenings of her childhood. Then a seemingly ordinary research inquiry leads her to discover a strange letter in the convent's archives. When she meets the researcher and starts asking questions about her family's true business, she's drawn into forms of danger that she can hardly begin to understand.
Warnings: implied torture, gore
Recommendation: If you really, really need to read something with evil angels in it, there are worse alternatives. Otherwise, this might serve best as a sleep aid.

I did my level best to avoid spoilers, but a few vague ones have made it into the red pen section.

What makes this one richly detailed:

The story begins with Sister Evangeline living out her daily routine in St. Rose Convent. She has recovered from her mother's mysterious death years ago and tried to ignore the unanswered questions about her family, but a simple research inquiry about Abigail Rockefeller brings everything rushing back. Even before the past starts to unfold, Evangeline's life feels complete in every detail--Trussoni devotes plenty of pagetime to the beautiful construction of the convent itself, the holy rituals that the nuns practice, and even the problems of older Sisters not being able to retire from their more strenuous good works because of the modern problem of low recruitment. The research really shows here, making the peace that Evangeline has chosen seem beautiful rather than just constricting (although it certainly can be). Throughout the book, settings and backgrounds are described with great care-- every character of note has a worldview and pattern of behavior that is explained in part by the given backstory, and the better instances feel like a real introduction to the characters in question.

The angelological traditions
are by far the best worldbuilding feature. People have been at this for centuries and millennia, trying to combine any ancient texts they can find with more modern scientific views of the Nephilim, descendants of Watcher angels who bred with human women against God's will. Classes for aspiring students cover everything from celestial music to vulnerable spots in wing construction, and the whole idea hits a sweet spot between a school of magic and hunters training for a grim supernatural war that they know they can't win. One sixth-century piece of that tradition shine in scraps of an ancient manuscript detailing an expedition to a cave full of Watchers. It's supposed to have been been translated from Latin and fragments of Bulgarian but still manages to balance an archaic sound with the very real terror as Clematis's sanity deteriorates in the wake of what he saw and heard down in the cavern. On the way out, he finds and loses the lyre of Gabriel, an artifact of dangerous supernatural power; the Watchers nearly used it to trick him into releasing them, and the Nephilim in the present day would use it to give themselves greater power and threaten humanity as never before.

The present day and Clematis's journey are joined by two young angelologists in Paris at the outbreak of World War Two: Celestine, who became a nun, and Gabriella, Evangeline's grandmother. The middle section of the book deals with their journey to find the lyre found by finding the ancient cave of the Watchers. The two women are never at ease with each other and have different approaches to the knowledge, but they also have some of the most nuanced characterization in the book and live in the heart of the angelological academy, which is very nearly a character in its own right. Celestine delivers a lot of exposition but also has one excellent moment that may well be the best in the book, and Gabriella becomes an elderly woman who is no less competent in her seventies than she was as a brilliant student. She's resourceful, nearly fearless, and elegant even under the pressure of conducting a car-to-car gunfight. Once she becomes involved in the present-day quest for the lyre, the story picks up significantly-- had this treasure hunt comprised more of the book, it might have fared much better.

The red pen:

Saying that the story starts with Evangeline in the convent is imprecise; the story starts (after a very brief prologue) with Evangeline getting "dressed quickly, half asleep, without looking in the mirror." In the next paragraph, she takes off her night shift, describes her underwear and her body during a lingering examination in the mirror, and then gets dressed. Opening a book in any genre with the protagonist waking up, getting dressed, and looking in the mirror is overdone verging on lazy. It almost works here because of the details about the clothes that the sisters of St. Rose all wear and helps establish the the convent as a different world, but then there's the weird chronology loop of clothing and the deeply predictable revelation that she's thin and has nice hair, which tends to be shorthand for "pretty and hasn't gotten around to realizing it yet." This is the first page, and it's not at all an inaccurate barometer of the rest of the book.

Detail can be wonderful, but this much exposition slows down the story to the point that it feels almost like wading through a swamp. I haven't seen this much exposition crammed into one book since I was plowing through a chapter about the exact proportions of whale bones in Moby Dick. The angelology-centered sections tend to be at least interesting, but some of the rest contribute nothing and leave the pacing dead in the water. In the middle of a dark story about how the convent of St. Rose was burned by Nephilim, one character even takes the time to describe the exact construction of the church organ as well as the light falling through stained-glass windows at midday and sparkling on the skin of the Nephilim. In any of the stories or letter about the past, there will be a digression about clothing, architecture, restaurant decor, or some other detail that slows down the scene at hand...and then all the best bits are compressed and nonsensical. The aforementioned treasure hunt for the lyre takes less than a day, with the characters fanning out to cover more ground. At each location where something is hidden, there's an employee who has been briefed on angelology and is ready to bend over backwards to help the searchers....without really asking for identification. The angelologists have known for years that Abigail Rockefeller helped hide the lyre but have inexplicably spent years neglecting to take a basic day tour of places that she planned (and paid) to have built. Once the angelologists arrive, they occasionally have to solve puzzles of a difficulty rivaled only by the "assemble these letters into a word" riddles in Brian Jacques's The Pearls of Lutra.

The subject matter is intriguing, but it's presented by two of the dullest love interests ever to grace the pages of a thriller. Evangeline is a serviceable reader stand-in who is happy to have things explained to her at great length, but she has very few emotions and shifts personalities when it is convenient to the narrative for her to do so. In the beginning, she's devoted to life at St. Rose because of her father's wishes and loves the quietly sacred nature of her calling-- after a catastrophe, she just suddenly knows, in the course of less than a day, that she has to begin a new life, apparently by having Deep Romantic Feelings. There's almost no emotional fallout over this, even though she's been with the church since puberty. Verlaine, the researcher unknowingly hired by the Nephilim Percival Grigori, is worse. He's a watered-down echo of Robert Langdon, Dan Brown's infamous(ly bad) protagonist-- he has deeply atrocious taste in accessories and loves historical research in a way that allows him to conveniently know vital information (as is so common for art history graduate students). He also has something of a condescending crush on Evangeline, constantly noting that he just can't see her as a nun because she's too pretty, and it starts their already-tepid attraction off on a sour note.

The Nephilim themselves unfortunately don't make sense. At all. We're told at one point that they allow angelologists to survive because while the Nephilim are wealthy and powerful and sensual, they don't have the intelligence or academic discipline to do research and let the angelologists do all the work for them. This might make sense if the Nephilim weren't supposed to have been the evil masterminds behind twists and turns all over history, particularly the rise of the Nazi party. As an aside, this is overdone-- if there's a shadowy magical group running human affairs, please stop making them in league with or secretly behind the Nazis. Comic books alone have left this well dry, and the train of "they're evil, so clearly Nazis are involved here" has lost all shock value. To stretch credulity even further, the angelologists are firmly convinced that "atheism was their greatest invention." The "they" here are the Nephilim, who want people to believe that angels are pure fiction so that they can hide in plain sight more easily and to keep intellectuals and people of faith in separate groups to weaken them. Aside from one friend's hilarious suggestion that Dawkins is an evil angel under this rubric (I would read that book), there is just no way to read this passage without getting a headache. The Nephilim don't have intellectual prowess....but they're wealthy and built the world's power structures and cunningly invented atheism as a way to steer centuries of humanity's philosophical development. 

There are many lingering questions about this book, including the following: how on earth did these people find a mostly-empty subway car in New York on Christmas Eve? Do Nephilim actually do anything but have fancy parties and twirl their mustaches in an evil fashion? Has no one in this book ever heard of a photocopier to apply to all of these irreplaceable notes that are getting stolen right and left? How are these people hiding from the Nephilim by driving around in flashy vintage cars with license plates like ANGEL1? Are there any characters at all in this book who aren't white? If all the Nephilim (who hate humans a lot) are allegedly descended from the one who survived the Flood by disguising himself as the son of Noah, how are there separate species/classes of Nephilim....or Nephilim at all who exist without frightening incest-driven diseases? Was the ending easy to spot from the outer reaches of the solar system, or only from near-Earth orbit?

On the whole, Angelology starts from a solid premise that ultimately collapses under the weight of its own backstory and rushes past many of the best potential elements. It ought to make for an intriguing adventure, sort of The Da Vinci Code meets His Dark Materials with the added bonus of a setting that's not common in any genre, but it alternates between over-explaining things and barely explaining them at all; the flat characters certainly don't help. I'd consider a second try if Trussoni wrote another series and had an editor willing to go after the exposition with a machete, but the rest of this series seems like a lost cause.

Prospects: The sequel, Angelopolis, came out in January. There may well be a movie down the road, but I wouldn't bet on it being soon until we hear more concrete news. I'm normally a die-hard "the book was better" fan, but the Hollywood treatment may be exactly what this book needs.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~S.M. Stirling's A Taint in the Blood works with vampires rather than Nephilim, but it does a far better job of presenting a hidden magical race steering the world's affairs.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for reading this so I don't have to :)

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    1. You're welcome! ^^ I kept hoping it would get good, but every great chapter was followed by a heaping dose of "what."

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