Author: Sharon Shinn
Published: 1997, Ace
I was inspired by Dear Author's Sharon Shinn week to give this new-to-me author a try. The Ja(y)nes and Janine described Shinn as fantasy with a strong romantic element, which is the kind of fantasy I like best. Janine gave Archangel an A. Rosario just gave it an A+. I didn't love it quite as much as them, but it was good.
The world of Samaria is made up of humans and angels. The angels are not really the celestial beings we think of. They are more like regular humans who are able to pray to the god, Jovah, to grant favors (and they have wings and can fly). The angels are led by the Archangel, an angel who rules for twenty years and who is chosen by Jovah. (Jovah's decisions are communicated to the angels through his oracles.) The archangel must also have his angelica, a wife who helps him. At the start of this book, Gabriel is about to ascend to archangel. But first he needs to find his angelica. He goes to the oracle who tells him that his mate is named Rachel. Gabriel goes to find her, and discovers that she is not the noble-born woman he was expecting, but rather a slave. Gabriel takes Rachel back to his home of the Eyrie, a mountain-top retreat of angels. But Rachel sees this as just another sort of prison, and has no wish to love Gabriel or help the angels.
So poor Gabriel has a stubborn wife who won't go along with anything he says and he discovers that the current archangel, Raphael, has decided he doesn't want to give up the power of his position. He will do anything, including killing Rachel, to secure his power. But he has also been corrupted to the point that he does not even believe in the god anymore, and abuses his power by giving favors to the rich, while ignoring the poor downtrodden.
This is a very original, very interesting story. The world Shinn creates is fascinating. The book is just a great big fat rich thing, full to the brim with detailed characters and settings. The writing I thought was just beautiful. I liked this line near the end, when Rachel is finally free to make her own decisions, but seems unable to do so: "It was as if every strand of her life lay scattered before her like so many threads awaiting the weaver's skill, but she could not lift her hands and work them into a design." The characters all have personalities and motivations that are complex but never inconsistent.
So why didn't I love it? Well, Rachel is really not an easy character to like. She is contrary and stubborn and difficult. The kind of character you want to shake and scream at. She has been rescued from slavery by an angel. She is the chosen mate of the leader of the world. Does she see this as an opportunity to help people? No, at least not at first. She's whiney. And irritating.
Also the whole predestined lovers thing never really works for me. What can I say? I like my characters to have a bit more free will in choosing who they love.
And the religion, which pervades every line of this book, made me a little uncomfortable. Rosario mentioned that she tried to ignore any parallels that could be drawn between this religion and the organized religions of our world. And I did the same thing. For one thing, as a pretty much areligious person myself, I am shamefully ignorant of biblical stories. I wish that Shinn had not given all her characters biblical names.
That said, the Samarian religion was interesting. I like the idea of a religion based not on good and evil, but rather on harmony and equality. The god is portrayed as a pretty much unfeeling being, who won't go out of his way to help people unless he's asked to by the angels.
I bet the Pope wishes he could make a display of God's power the way Raphael called down Jovah's power. I bet that would help church attendance. Yeah, just smite all the unbelievers with a lightning bolt. But this episode in the book bothered me. It takes all the mysticism out of religious faith. And can belief in a god after incontrovertible proof of his existence even be called faith? Isn't faith by its very definition belief in something that can not be proved? Okay I've gone off on a tangent. And this book did inspire a lot of thought on my part, so maybe that means it was a really good book!
Anyway, I do want to try more Shinn, but I'm not sure I can take more Samaria. I think she has books set outside this world, so I might try one of those next.
OH and I forgot. Can someone explain to me why this was published as a science fiction novel? And the blurb on the front page: "Generations later, the armed starship Jehovah still looms over the planet of Samaria, programmed to unleash its arsenal if peace is not sustained..."
Umm. What? DUDE, there are NO spaceships in this book. It's straight fantasy. Old-world type setting. WTF?