Angelfall was an unexpected reading experience. Having no foreknowledge whatsoever as to what it was about or where it was heading, I was completely caught up in the story and its surprises, staying up well past a reasonable hour in order to get to its conclusion.
Best described as a melding of the supernatural romance of Twilight with the dystopian wastelands of The Hunger Games, the story revolves around Penryn, a seventeen year old girl who struggles for survival in the wake of an angel invasion. These angels aren’t the wise, benevolent angels of New Age pop culture, but the Old Testament-style warriors who leave mass destruction and chaos in their wake. Earth’s population has no idea why they’ve invaded the planet or what they’re hoping to achieve; they only know that they’ve already lost the war against them. Now humanity lives in scattered communities, hoping to defend what little territory they have left and scrounge for supplies in the wastelands that remain.
Penryn is trying to move her mother and wheelchair-bound sister Paige to a safer location when a melee of angels crashes to earth right in front of her. It’s a five-against-one confrontation that ends with Penryn helping out the angel set upon by the others, hoping to provide enough of a distraction for her mother and sister to escape. Yet in quick succession Paige is kidnapped and Penryn takes the injured angel hostage, desperate to learn where the others have taken her sister. Dependent on each other for safety, girl and angel come to a tentative truce: together they’ll journey to the aerie in San Francisco so that Penryn can search for her sister and Raffe (short for Raphael) can get his destroyed wings reattached. Neither one is particularly optimistic about the possibility for success.
To continue with the Twilight/Hunger Games comparison, Penryn has a strong narrative voice, a no-nonsense, self-deprecating tone that’s more reminiscent of Katniss Everdeen than Bella Swan (mercifully). This is a young woman whose first impulse leans toward personal safety and the wellbeing of her family; any growing feelings she has for Raffe are entirely incidental to her survivalist instincts.
These days romances between humans and supernatural creatures (be they vampires, werewolves, fairies or angels) are a dime a dozen, and though the budding connection between Penryn and Raffe feels more obligatory than organic, it doesn’t take up much of the page count or intrude too much into Penryn’s internal narrative. Her main objective remains her sister; this is a heroine that’s not trying to save the world, just her family.
There are plenty of intriguing supporting characters that Penryn and Raffe encounter along the way, including an anarchic human resistance and plenty of angels with agendas of their own. A particular treat is Penryn’s mother, a woman who seems to be a paranoid schizophrenic and who weaves in and out of the story almost at random. She actually reminded me of Will Parry’s mother in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a mother who suffers from an undiagnosed mental affliction, but whose erratic behaviour begins to make an unsettling and unexpected amount of sense in this terrifying new world.
In the Angelfall’s final chapters there is so much gore and blood that even I got a little queasy, so it’s important not to understate the book’s darkness. This is a dangerous and violent post-apocalyptic world where death is cheap and people are forced to do desperate things to survive – and that’s not even getting into what the angels are up to…
There is plenty of material left over for the intended sequels, and because of Angelfall’s unique style (first-person narrative told in present tense) it is both fast-paced and riveting. Told strictly from Penryn’s point-of-view, we’re privy to the same amount of information she is as she gradually begins to piece together Raffe’s backstory and the reasons behind the angel invasion, whilst simultaneously getting hints as to her mother’s condition, their family history and how it connects to her sister’s paralysis. Even by the end there are still plenty of questions left unanswered, and Susan Ee leaves herself a lot of room in which to further explore her characters and storylines.
Honestly though, this is one book that I really didn’t know what to make of. In parts horrifying and funny, suspenseful and scary, weird and heart-warming, it’s a difficult book to pin down. All I know for sure is that I’ll be checking out the sequel.