Book Review: Archangel by Sharon Shinn

by Alaena Hope

When I picked up Archangel by Sharon Shinn, I was expecting it to be humorous. Instead, it turned out to be a very serious but certainly memorable tale that uses a very unique world to examine the constant struggles we face, both internally and externally, with such forces as faith, pride, and greed.

The world—or the part of it that this book concerns anyway—is called Samaria. It is divided into three major regions, each of which has its own population of humans, angels, and oracles (the oracles, as far as I can tell, are human, but they occupy a very special, separate position). The angels, in this case, are a species just as humans are that are born, grow up, and so forth, but they are also the conduit between humans and Jovah, the god of this world who is said to have brought the people to this land from another world. As such, the angels act as overseers. When there is drought, the people can ask an angel to sing for rain, and when there is plague, they can ask the angels to sing for healing, etc.. Though there are three hosts of angels, they are led by a single Archangel, each of whom reigns for twenty years. He or she is chosen by Jovah, and one of his or her main duties is to lead the annual singing of the Gloria. He or she must do this alongside of his or her human spouse, also chosen by Jovah. If the Gloria is not properly performed at the appointed time and place, it is said that Jovah will begin destroying the world. I say begin because the people get three chances to make things right before the world ends.

The novel begins when the angel Gabriel, with only a handful of months left before the all important Gloria when he is supposed to officially take his place as the next Archangel, finally goes to the oracles to learn who Jovah has chosen to be his future wife. He is somewhat dismayed by her identity, but, being the serious and extremely dutiful angel that he is, he sets out to find her only to discover that that is a task much easier said than done. Not only is she not where she was supposed to be but, when he does finally find her, she has no desire at all to be his Angelica (the term used to refer to the human wife of an Archangel). Thus begins a very, very rocky relationship that is made all the more complicated by the political intrigue surrounding the current Archangel and his many wealthy supporters.

For me, many of the events and moments that left the deepest impression on me were those surrounding the characters’ struggle with the concept of faith. Perhaps this was because, in a world like Samaria, faith doesn’t sound like something people would have much difficulty keeping or feel much need to debate. This is a world where God has laid out both philosophical guidelines, such as that all should live in harmony, and solid rules, such as where and when the Gloria must be sung, He communicates with the oracles directly, appoints Archangels, and even regularly performs ‘miracles’ in answer to the songs of the angels. Yet there are still those who doubt among both humans and angels. Even those who believe that they believe cannot escape their share of turmoil.

Technically there’s a lot that can be analyzed on this point, but I don’t want to give away too much. So I’m going to use two examples that played very small roles in the overall book.

In this world, it has long been a rule that angels cannot pair up with other angels. An angel and a human can produce angelic or human children, but the offspring of two angels will be a monster that cannot live long and dies painfully. It is also a known fact that Jovah’s Kiss, the mark that everyone who has been dedicated to Jovah has on his or her arm, will glow when a person is in the presence of his or her god-chosen partner. Gabriel, for instance, was able to find Rachel in a place where he completely did not expect to do so because of the way his Kiss reacted. However, his brother, the angel Nathen, is in love with an angel from another host. The match is clearly taboo except that their Kisses react strongly to each other. Hence the dilemma: trust the old edict forbidding angels to be together or trust the Kiss, Jovah’s sign for couples that are meant to be?

Similarly, there is an ongoing conflict surrounding the angels’ power to call down the wrath of Jovah upon wrongdoers. They have the power—or at least they know the song, and they have the right as those who have been tasked with watching over humanity. However, no angel currently alive has ever tried to smite anyone. Part of this is because the threat itself is usually enough of a deterrent, but another part appears to be that, deep down, the angels are afraid that this particular song is not one that would be answered. And if it isn’t answered then everyone’s understanding of the very nature of the world would have to change.

In short, this book gave me a lot to think about. It’s not light reading, but I did enjoy it. My only real qualm with the story was that I just couldn’t like Rachel. I tried to at least be sympathetic, considering her background, but her attitude and behavior (especially in regards to Gabriel) were, at times, simply too irrational for me to understand. She seems to be one of those people who insist on being stubborn just for the sake of being stubborn. She expects some truly unreasonable things and tends to mistake obstinacy for pride. But she had her good moments too, so I guess it balances out.