Gabriel is about to become Archangel. He is required to lead the annual singing of the Gloria on the Plains of Sharon in just a few months with his wife, the angelica, at his side. There is just one problem: Gabriel isn’t married. Faced with this dilemma, he goes to the oracle to find out who he is supposed to marry, and is given the name of a woman, Rachel, but he has no idea where to find her. With the months slipping away before his voice raised in song is the only thing that can turn away the wrath of the god Jovah, he crisscrosses the land, and finally locates her — an Edori slave girl who has no intention of marrying an angel and spending her life in a different type of servitude. To make matters worse, the current Archangel, Raphael, seems less likely every day to peaceably hand over his position to Gabriel.
Archangel is an amazing book. Sharon Shinn has created a world with a slight science fiction underpinning — the oracles are using computers to consult the god Jovah — but that is as fantastical as any I have ever read. With an Old Testament flavor, the land of Samaria is populated by several races of people bound together and lead by the angelic hosts who can intercede with Jovah through their amazing singing. Angels sing hymns that can control the weather, bring magical seeds raining from the heavens to treat illness, and serve as a legal system to govern the people. However, the balance the angels have long kept has slipped under the twenty year reign of Raphael, and the leaders of the humans are not looking forward to the stern and strict Gabriel becoming Archangel.
Each of the different cultures has a distinctive flair, and Shinn’s writing is evocative and visual — the Edori Gathering, the blue city of Luminaux, the terrifying Windy Point — all the different locations leap off the page in fully realized detail. The final show down between Gabriel and Raphael was so seamlessly and powerfully written that reading it was like watching a movie unfold in my mind.
The cast of characters in Archangel is also masterfully written. As much as this is a story of the corrupting influences of power, and the battle between faith and doubt, it is also a love story between two sometimes unlikeable characters. For an angel, Gabriel can be a pompous jerk, and Rachel can be stubborn and defensive. However, watching both of these flawed characters try to reconcile duties that have been imposed upon them with their own plans is a gratifying experience. There are moments of pure beauty here, and watching these two characters slowly, painfully, and awkwardly come together is emotionally satisfying.
I usually include a discussion of the shortcomings of a book in the review, but I can’t think of anything that I didn’t like about Archangel. There is a reason that this book won the William Crawford Award and was nomination for the John Campbell award — it really is a stunningly beautiful and emotionally compelling piece of fiction. I highly recommend Archangel for all readers, from older YA and up, especially if you like your fantasy seasoned with a dash of romance. I am heading to the library to pick up the sequel (Jovah’s Angel) to take with me on vacation next week and I won’t even bother bringing a backup book.