Angelology: Fails to create a willing suspension of disbelief

fantasy book reviews Danielle Trussoni Angelologybook review Danielle Trussoni AngelologyAngelology by Danielle Trussoni

Danielle Trussoni is a highly educated and well established non-fiction writer with an award-nominated memoir under her belt already. She has a degree in history and an MFA in creative writing. She puts both of those degrees to use in Angelology. When she is drawing on history, the book comes to life.

I should say that I tend to be biased against writers who come out of MFA programs. Maybe it’s just reverse snobbery, but it seems to me that they have learned to write exquisite paragraphs but don’t always have a good sense of story, or, if they have a story, plot is nearly impossible for them to master. Angelology has a plot, and it’s an interesting one, even if it isn’t terribly fresh. Danielle Trussoni postulates that hybrid human-angels, called Nephilim, exist in the world, hiding in plain sight among humans, and that they are the cause of most of the evil that humans endure. They are manipulators and tempters, nurturing the bad in humanity for their own selfish ends. A secret society of angelologists studies them, battles them, and tries to undermine their evil schemes. Lately, since the 20th century at least, things have not been going so well for the home team.

Against this historical backdrop the reader meets Evangeline, a young nun in an unusual convent in New York’s Hudson Valley. Evangeline, who works in the convent library, discovers a series of letters from Abigail Rockefeller, letters that imply that an historical artifact of great significance was hidden at or near the convent. At the same time, Verlaine, a Ph.D. student working on his thesis, making a living doing research and some art appraisals, becomes aware of the letters as well. Verlaine is working for a man named Grigori, a name that will immediately tip off fantasy readers or anyone who has read supernatural thrillers about angels.

Grigori and his family live like successful Mafiosi in a palatial New York penthouse, but Grigori is suffering from a debilitating and fatal infection peculiar to the Nephilim. He believes that the artifact will cure him.

The story moves through time, with several references to 1940’s Paris and a secret expedition to Bulgaria, when the artifact, a celestial musical instrument, is found. Evangeline is reminded that her mother and father were both angelologists, and that her mother was abducted and murdered by the Nephilim. Evangeline, a Catholic nun, always wears a golden pendant in the shape of a lyre around her neck, a gift from her grandmother at her mother’s funeral. Gabrielle, her grandmother, is a powerful angelologist with an historical connection to the Grigori clan.

In order to make Angelology work, Trussoni had to set it in 1999, yet she uses expressions not in use during that decade at all. Similarly, it should seem odd to the reader that a nun is allowed to wear a bright piece of jewelry that is not a cross every day in her convent. As it turns out, it is not odd, once we discover the truth of the convent. What’s odd is that Evangeline has never questioned this. In the first chapter, Evangeline gets a letter, requesting access to the convent archives, signed “V.A. Verlaine.” Without a second’s hesitation, she replies to “Mr. Verlaine,” with no thought about whether the writer is male. He is male, but we never know his first name and no one ever asks him. He is Verlaine throughout the book. No one finds this strange.

The book drags in sections when Trussoni provides information about The Watchers, the original rebel angels. Gabriella tells us that the angelologists are not interested in The Watchers, but Trussoni clearly is.

A large portion of the book takes place in the 1940s, from the point of view of Celestine, an angelologist and nun. The book is at its most sensuous and convincing during this section, even if predictable. Descriptions of Montparnasse are vivid, rooted in detail that includes scent and tactile descriptions. Celestine’s depiction of the expedition to a place called The Devil’s Throat, and what they find in this subterranean chasm, is chilling and wonderful.

In the last quarter of the book, Trussoni tries to power up her thriller with a mix of puzzle-solving, New York travelogue, and action. She is moderately successful, but the pacing of the book and the long, long sections of talking heads, with everyone speaking in paragraphs and expositing things they already knew, made me twitchy and irritated. This book wraps up the plot Trussoni laid out, and sets the stage for future books (the second one is called Angelopolis).

Trussoni fails to create a willing suspension of disbelief. For a supernatural thriller set in the real world, the stakes are very high for the writer, and they must invite the reader into their worldview quickly and with no missteps. Showing us a young nun wearing a golden Lyre of Orpheus in the first six pages of the book and not explaining it is a misstep. Failing to identify the gender of the letter writer is a misstep. Having Verlaine say, “I’m an overeducated, left-of-left, soy-latte-drinking, borderline-metrosexual liberal agnostic” in 1999, while amusing, is a misstep. Creating doubts in the plausibility of your world is a difficult mistake to overcome.

Trussoni’s pacing gives the reader too much time to think about things, and the repetition (particularly Genesis 6, which is quoted at least three times) becomes irritating.

Trussoni’s prose is clear and her repeated descriptions of the Hudson Valley and the river are gorgeous. Her vision of the convent and the attached chapel is wonderful. Finishing Angelology made me want to find her non-fiction book Falling Through the Earth. It does not make me want to read Angelopolis.

~Marion Deeds

book review Danielle Trussoni AngelologyI’m really trying to find something positive to say about Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology, but to be honest, I really can’t think of much of anything. Which means this will be a pretty quick review, as I’m not much of a fan of belaboring why a bad book is a bad book (realizing of course that “bad” is pretty subjective).

Angelology is the first book in a series detailing the ongoing battle that has raged since the time of Noah between the “Nephilim” (a hybrid race of angels/humans) and humanity. The Nephilim arose when a group of angels — the Watchers — mated with human women. For this, God imprisoned the Watchers in a deep cavern. The Nephilim, however, remained. At first they enslaved mankind, then when God wiped the Earth clean, one of them sneaked aboard the Ark, allowing the race to continue. From that point on, they dominated humanity more behind the scenes as kings and queens and aristocrats, then as the wealthy elite or politically powerful (for instance, they were behind the Nazis). Because the Nephilim, for some reason, have continued to mate with humans, they’ve tainted their line and are diminishing as a race and individually via sickness. In the present time, a young nun, Sister Evangeline, ends up involved in modern day plots by the Nephilim to cure themselves and return to domination, and by the Angelologists, the group of humans who have opposed the Nephilim for millennia (such as Madame Curie, Augustine, and lots of other famous people). Along with following Evangeline, we flash back to the 1930’s and a group of Angelologists that includes Evangeline’s grandmother.

The plot is excessively convoluted and often simply fails to make sense, not in terms of “what is happening,” but “why is this happening?” Time and again one finds oneself saying “but wouldn’t…” or “couldn’t they just have…” Too many events seem arbitrary, too many motivations are muddy, too many situations are complex for complexity’s sake (a complexity often highlighted by the often too-simple resolutions that follow).

The mythology and backstories are offered up in clunky exposition: characters reminisce over events in convenient narrative, chronological fashion; lecture (literally) other characters, ask questions they already know the answers to, conveniently overhear expository conversation, and read letters and journals.

Few of the characters are compelling. Evangeline is especially weak, which is unfortunate since she carries much of the book. Her male cohort, Verlaine, is equally pale. As for the “villain” — the Nephilim Percival Grigori — it’s hard to even think of him as such as because he’s so inept. The Nephilim are supposed to be terrifyingly powerful creatures, but they bumble like the bad guys in Home Alone. When the “big battle” is a group of near-angels taking on a convent of nuns, and the near-angels lose in the space of a few sentences, you know you’re in some narrative trouble. The exception is the WWII flashback with Evangeline’s grandmother and her rival Celestine (one of the nuns). Here the characters are more alive, though this is tainted both by characters being implausibly oblivious and uncommunicative and by that same clunky exposition.

Angelology tries to turn into a puzzle quest at the near-end, but it moves between absurdly arcane/elaborate and absurdly simple. Afterward, it closes with one of the most muddy and anti-climactic confrontations I’ve ever read.

In the end, Angelology falls far short in nearly every element: character, plot, premise, etc. Trussoni has written an acclaimed memoir, but the move to fiction appears to have been a move too far, at least with her first novel. Not recommended.

~Bill Capossere

Angelology — (2010) Read excerpts at the Angelologist website. Publisher: Set in the secluded world of cloistered abbeys, long-lost secrets and angelic humans, Angelology has all the makings of a blockbuster hit, combining elements of The Da Vinci Code and Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth. Sister Evangeline was just a young girl when her father left her at St. Rose Convent under the care of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Now a young woman, she has unexpectedly discovered a collection of letters dating back sixty years — letters that bring her deep into a closely guarded secret, to an ancient conflict between the millennium-old Society of Angelologists and the monstrously beautiful Nephilim, the descendants of angels and humans. Rich and mesmerizing, Angelology blends biblical lore, mythology and the fall of the Rebel Angels, creating a luminous, riveting tale of one young woman caught in a battle that will determine the fate of the world.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds


  1. I have heard very little good about this book!

  2. I think she is a very skilled writer who is still learning how to craft a story–a state I can relate to!

  3. I too have read great things about this book.

  4. I hated this book and am always glad to see people agree with me. Can’t fathom why the New York Times seems to love it so much.

  5. With both Bill and Marion giving it one star, I’ll be staying away.

  6. This caught my interest when it first came out. I always said I’d read it when I came across it in a bargain bin somewhere. Now, I think I’ll pass.

    I can’t explain why, but I feel like this is a book that should be good.

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