Why I Read It: When I read Sharon Shinn’s Archangel (LJ || WP) a few years ago, I fell in love with it, so it was a no-brainer that I would pick up the sequel, Jovah’s Angel, when I found it on the shelves during the Borders Close-out sale last year. Sadly, it’s been languishing in my TBR pile all this time, but when it finally rose to the top, I was glad to see it there and give it a whirl.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: One hundred and fifty years have passed since the tenure of the Archangel Gabriel and his angelica Rachel, a time of peace and stability. But now, great storms are sweeping the lands, the deserts flood, and the skies rain down death and destruction. Then the proud and beautiful Archangel Delilah falls victim to the rage of wind, as she is torn from the sky, her wing broken. She can no longer soar in the heavens, guiding and guarding those below. She can no longer be first among the angels. Never before have the oracles had to choose a new Archangel while one still lived. And though Jovah’s anger blows all about them, still they must consult him. His choice – the angel Alleluia, a solitary scholar of undistinguished lineage. Now the fate of the planet rests with the reluctant Archangel Alleluia, who believes in her duty and her god. And her fate in turn, may well depend on the mortal Caleb, a man who believes only in science – and himself.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. If you’ve not read this book, or if you’re not familiar with the series, please skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be just fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: In my review of Archangel, one of the main points of discussion was how, unless you’d read the backcover blurb, you really didn’t know that Jovah was actually the spaceship Jehovah, and therefore despite little clues that could be more confusing than not, you don’t get you’re reading a science fantasy novel.
Fast forward 150 years since Archangel, and Shinn reveals a society that’s becoming more industrial and technological. The clues about Jovah’s true identity were far clearer, though I’m not sure if it’s because the author made them clearer or if I’m just too familiar with the behind-the-scenes workings of this world. Regardless, the point of the story ends up being the unmasking of Jovah, but only for two characters: one an angel, the other an atheist.
Talk about a fantastic pairing.
So what are these hints? On page 7 we get a more detailed description of how the oracles communicate with Jovah. Mind you, in the previous books we did get some detail, but this is more, and it makes it obvious:
He sat with a certain reverence before the pulsing secreen, running his hands experimentally over the strange hieroglyphics on the shelf before him. When he touched a symbol, it would appear on the face of the blue plate, forming words in a language so old only the oracles could learn it; and when the god responded, he did so in the same forgotten tongue. They called this bright surface the “interface,” thought it was a word that had little meaning to them. So did the oracles before them name the device, and the oracles before them, back to the founding of Samaria.
Job worked slowly, as he always did, because this alien language did not come easily to him and he did not want to err. He constructed his first message, a simple greeting, merely to confirm that Jovah was awake and ready to hear petitions. He was relieved beyond measure when the reply came quickly back in navy letters laid against the glowing screen.
The second part of the message was complex and had to be carefully worded, so he read it aloud to Mary before touching the key that would signal to Jovah that his thought was complete.
And the batteries that power what is essentially a CD player? OMG. It makes me laugh in a way, because it’s so simple, and before the revelation, you imagine something bigger and more complex, right? At least it’s a super-powerful battery, probably Energizer, since it lasted over six freaking centuries.
The world-building continues to engage me, and I admire it greatly. The infusion of Old Testament applied to a new world as well as elements of classical music literature just make me happy. The classical music stuff I wouldn’t recognize if I hadn’t been a music major who had to take music literature, but seeing Monteverde on the map and knowing it’s likely a nod to the composer Claudio Monteverdi just makes me squee inside.
I also appreciated Shinn’s treatment of Caleb’s atheism. All too often, atheism can be synonymous with hate, depending on your point of view, and while hate is an attitude displayed by a great many people, including very religious ones, there is that stereotype that atheists are very, very angry people determined to prove that God and nothing else exists.
Those people do exist, yes. But not all atheists act that way, which is why Caleb’s characterization really rung true for me. He’s got a scientific mind, and he wants answers. He’s not trying to prove he’s right to everyone he listens, but he engages with others and explores his ideas, waiting for someone to give him a satisfactory answer as to why he should believe, but yet not NEEDING it, because he’s perfectly happy to tinker with his experiments and his trade. On page 57, we get a glimpse into his thought process, which also sets us up for the reveal of what Jovah is, even though I’d day most readers already know at this point:
“Then how do you account for us being here at all — living on Samaria — brought here by what device if not Yovah himself?”
Caleb grinned. “Now, that’s a mystery that puzzles me every time I open my mind to it,” he admitted. “The Librera says Jovah carried us here in his cupped palms, over a great distance, from a far place filled with violence and hatred. But how did he do that? How did he pick us? Why did he pick us? Although the why is not nearly as compelling as the how. In his cupped hands? What does that mean? If I chose to carry something over a great distance, I would find a box or a bucket or a container of some sort. Say I were to move a colony of ants from Gaza to Breven. I wouldn’t want to carry them in my hands. They’d never make the trip safely. Hands must be a metaphor in this context, but a metaphor for what? And what exactly is meant by a great distance? The distance from Samaria to the stars that we see above us — how far is that? We can’t even guess how to measure that sort of space.
Despite loving the world-building and the treatment of faith versus atheism in this book, it was rather predictable. I immediately pegged Caleb as the “son of Jeremiah,” and I knew that in the end, Delilah would reclaim her position as Archangel and that Noah would be her angelico. It wasn’t even a major surprise when we discover that Alleya was really meant to be an oracle. Yet despite these predictable turns in the plot, I still found the reading and experiencing of them enjoyable, and that’s just a magic that Shinn has.
And of course, I worried for the characters. The pilgrimage to Ysral was particularly worrisome, not for the reasons the characters all suggest, but because I feared it was really supposed to be Israel on Earth, which means no amount of ocean could take them there, you know? Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case. There is a continent waiting for the Edori, and I hope they find peace and happiness there.
I also found myself squirming a bit while events were referenced from the first book. Like when Alleya states she doesn’t really believe that Rachel’s voice was as brilliant as Hagar’s. I was so sorry then, that the angels no longer had a method to record the Glorias, because I wanted to hear what Alleya thought about the difference between the two singers.
And I still want to HEAR this music that’s so lovingly discussed in this book, but I can at least be content with Shinn’s description of how it makes the reader feel. I don’t feel completely alienated, at least.
The big reveal with what Jovah really is and how things came to be the way they are now was rather satisfying. I really love the notion of lost culture, of lost technology, and how all of that can create a new creation story for the people left behind. I also love how we have quite a literal case of deus ex machina, or a God in the Machine.
I also loved how, between Alleya and Caleb, they were able to decide how to handle the revelation. Of course, the revelation galvanized Caleb, but he came to understand and appreciate Alleya’s logic, that providing such advanced technology too quickly could destroy their people, and that truth would come in time. This interaction between them, the believer versus the skeptic, is so very well done, because despite being polar opposites in their beliefs, they respect each other. Even come to love each other, and that speaks volumes that they don’t let their beliefs and ideals get between them.
Well, that’s not true: Alleya was ready to give Caleb up for the “son of Jeremiah,” willing to follow her role as the Archangel and do what was required of her. And yes, she’s the one whose belief system is shattered by the end, because everything she thought was true was something of a lie. She’s only comforted by the thought that all peoples of all races have a belief in a God-like being, and that maybe, just maybe, there might be something out there after all.
Point being, I love how neither character rubs his or her beliefs in the other’s face. That’s all. That he can accept that a “god” can be a positive opiate for the people. Consider page 356:
He completely missed the next choral entrance, so enraptured was he with the duet, and he was not the only one in the crowd who fumbled for the note. This time, though, he sang out more heartily; this time he was nearly won over. Let there be a god, then, he thought, if this is the devotion he commands.
An aside: I found myself wondering, in a fun fannish way, if Elizabeth Bear was influence by these books and Shinn’s world-building, and if so, how much? Because the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy is also a science fantasy of sorts, with genetically engineered angels. Yet both of these series are utterly unique, despite similar DNA. Being familiar with both, you can easily see what it means when an author is inspired by something.
Of course, I could be crazy: maybe Bear’s never read these books, and she and Shinn had the same interest about creating angels that could exist in the real world and how those angels would affect the world around them. Stranger things have happened!
And speaking of inspirations, learning that one reached Jehovah by teleporting immediately flashed me back to what little I’ve read of Anne McCaffrey. Authors are always inspiring one another.
My Rating: 8 – Excellent
I took my time with this book. I really wanted to absorb and admire all of the world-building details, as well as really get a solid sense of the story where where it would go and how it could end. While the book didn’t hold any major surprises for me, it was a delight to learn how right my own predictions were, and it was a delight to see how the characters responded to various challenges that faced them. Shinn writes in a way that immediately absorbs you in the world she’s created, and I have to laugh, since this was written long before the YA angel-craze took over, and it shows: the angels in this series have more gravitas, something more to say about their world and their god, and they’re just so much more interesting that the over-dramatic romances I’ve seen grace the YA shelves. For those tired of the angel craze, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: consider Sharon Shinn’s Samaria books an exception to the rule. Jovah’s Angel took the transition from science fantasy directly into science fiction by the end, but yet there’s a sense of wonder to the story and the world that doesn’t go away, even when you know what’s behind the curtain. The great thing about this series is that it’s one you can relish, and I’ll slowly be savoring these books for years to come.
Cover Commentary: I do love John Jude Palencar’s artwork. While I totally don’t get the headpiece the angel is wearing on the cover, I love the art itself. Its stark simplicity and yet total richness. Palencar’s art rarely fails to get my attention, and I like this cover far more than I did Archangel‘s.