Review: Principles of Angels, by Jaine Fenn

PrinciplesOfAngels

(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08292-2)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, June 2008)

Jaine Fenn is a young British spec-fic writer whose short stories have appeared in GUD, Escape Velocity, On Spec and other genre publications. Principles of Angels is her debut novel, of which I received an advance proof copy. It follows that some details of the proof copy reviewed here may differ from the final publication.

Khesh City is a mushroom-cap-shaped habitat, one of three such constructs suspended at an altitude of several kilometres above the planet of Vellern. Khesh City’s upper layers – topside – are divided into the Merchant, State, Leisure, and Guest Quarters, which between them cater for just about any whim of the wealthy or the curious. But to support the extravagant lifestyle of Khesh City’s topside, a lot of hidden machinery is required. Some of the concealed machinery is high-tech, found on Vellern’s surface, and in its subterranean caverns, directly beneath Khesh; but some is distinctly low-tech, in the form of primitive, stark, and brutal recycling processes that occur, through the agencies of a repressed underclass, who work and live in appalling conditions in Khesh City’s undertow, the dangerous lower reaches of the hovering city. Taro, a young twice-orphaned prostitute, is one of the human cogs in the city’s hidden machinery. His aunt and foster-mother Malia, an angel – a Government-sanctioned assassin – has been murdered, an act which renders Taro homeless and acutely vulnerable to predation by the undertow’s ruthless gangs. An excursion topside brings Taro into contact with the city’s all-powerful Minister, who by reason of Taro’s angel lineage hires the youth as an informant. But his first action in this capacity – the routine observation of a ‘removal’, the advertised assassination of the city’s wayward Senator Vidoran – goes pear-shaped when Taro recognises his aunt’s killer as the Senator’s bodyguard, and interrupts proceedings with disastrous results. Events devolve from there, and Taro must rapidly decide whether his best interests (and, it appears, those of the City) are served by falling in with the Minister, the undertow gangs, or the mysterious angel Nual.

I have to say at the outset that I’m not generally approving of attempts to splice the hardware of science fiction onto plotlines involving effectively-magical attributes or psychic abilities, and Principles of Angels is certainly such an attempt. There are a few too many cross-over aspects for my taste, with the incursion of what I’d regard as fantasy tropes into what lays claim to be a work of science fiction. Which means, I suppose, that I’m not really in the book’s target audience. However, I believe I can still make a reasonable try at summarising the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

The characterisation is, by and large, a strength. Fenn has an obvious empathy with her principal characters, and Taro in particular is very keenly drawn. The chapters in which Taro’s progress is explored are, overall, the book’s strongest, in part I think because the author has crafted him as such an engaging character. Other central figures – Nual, and the tourist/vocalist Elarn Reen – were, for me, less immediately plausible, but that may reflect their more direct involvement in the storyline’s psychic aspects. Fenn shows a clear hand with villains: Vidoran’s bodyguard Scarrion is a memorably nasty piece of work, as also are Taro’s would-be gang overlord Limnel and his offsider Resh. If I have a criticism of the characterisation it is that the participants divide a little too cleanly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters; I’d have appreciated a little more gradation into the greyer shades of morality.

The worldbuilding is also generally strong, although my heart sank a little at the revelation of the name given to Fenn’s mysterious alien race: the Sidhe. (Another fantasy incursion.) Beyond this, Khesh City is wonderfully detailed, and evoked in a natural-seeming fashion as the developing plot requires. There has obviously been a lot of thought put into the kinds of waste and water recycling services the city requires: these things are integral to the storyline (in part because they provide a raison d’etre for the undertow’s inhabitants). Food, too, provides some quite horrific details: I don’t think I really want to know what a ‘meatbaby’ is, and mash, the underclass’s staple foodstuff, is not much better. Overall, the contrast between the city’s topside and its seedy underbelly is very starkly delineated, though it too might prove too black-and-white for some tastes.

The plot and pacing is, I feel, more problematic. There are quite a few strands to the story, and while some of these threads are very well laid out, others seem at times to suffer credibility problems. The combat sequences did not always seem plausible to me: while the author excels at intrigue and is well able to develop tension, there were places in which I felt she attempted to sustain it for too long, such as in the book’s closing chapters where two or three standoff/pursuit episodes are interleaved and punctuated with some rather messy fight scenes. Because this is the climax towards which the book’s action has been building, the story’s conclusion and wrapup fell somewhat short of the promise offered by the work’s very strong beginning. I suspect that much of this might be attributed to first-novel problems: the book, by and large, has good bones (my quibbles about SF/fantasy intermingling aside), and there’s a lot going for Fenn’s writing style, but some of the fleshing-out of the story aspects seems to fall short. In my opinion, at least. Nonetheless, the story did retain my interest throughout, and I was genuinely motivated to follow Taro’s thread to learn whether he successfully negotiated all of the predicaments in which he found himself.

There are at least two further books planned in the sequence which Principles of Angels inaugurates. It will be interesting to see how these works extend on what is, here, a flawed but reasonably solid start.




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