Spoilers for Angel Mage (novel).
I first spotted Angel Mage when, on the recommendation of a friend, I resolved to pick up a copy of Gormenghast. The cover was slick and striking (black and gold will do that), and at the top, over the words Angel Mage, stood Joe Abercrombie’s words of adulation, ‘The most original magic I’ve seen in years’.
Perhaps the presence of the word ‘original’ and the lack of words like ‘best’ or ‘good’ or ‘interesting’ should have been a warning.
The word angel comes from the Greek ἄγγελος (angelos) which means messenger. Although most strongly associated with the heavenly messengers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, angelic or pseudo-angelic beings are present in many religions. Likewise, although the image of a white-robed, androgynous human is the most well-known image of an angel, when they are described in religious texts, they often take on altogether weirder forms, such as burning wheels covered in eyes, the six-winged attenders of God’s throne, or the bizarre “living creatures” of Ezekiel.
There is, obviously, great potential for fiction here, and because I have been working on a similar notion myself for some time, I was interested to see what an established author made of the same idea.
It started promisingly: in a fantastic re-imagining of the France of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, mages can give up some of their lifespan to draw upon the power of the angels, which are half-sensed, bizarre intelligences with limited scope and magical powers. Mages require icons in order to achieve this, and so there is a sort of expert class operating in most professions: physicians, and physicians who can summon angels; soldiers, and soldiers who can summon angels etc.. To shake things up from the standard white European Medieval fantasy even further, society appears to be largely matriarchal and the people are dark-skinned.
The writing is fine, although I found that few of the characters stood out as fully realized entities. I subsequently discovered that the book is, allegedly, YA fiction. Some people think that YA fiction is somehow excused from standards of writing expected of fiction for those As no longer Y. Whenever this is brought up, I am reminded of almost everything Pixar has ever done: clear testament to the fact that something can appeal to a broad, or young, audience and still have high standards of writing.
Unfortunately, not only did I struggle to become invested in the characters or the writing, but the world-building fell apart quite quickly too.
Sarance is Richelieu’s France but with matriarchy, magic, and a mostly black population. As a premise, I love this idea to bits. However, it all goes wrong very quickly because it is all window-dressing, with relatively little substance.
Let us start with the matriarchy: the Queen is the dominant power in Sarance, although the Cardinal (also female) is a key figure too. The reason why the Cardinal is important and powerful is not only because she alone has the authority to call upon the Archangel Ashalael, but also because she is the most senior religious figure in the city.
That is it. That is all the information we get about this system which forms the backdrop for all the drama. Anyone who is acquainted with The Three Musketeers will be able to fill in the blanks, but the point of world-building is not to leave blanks, it is to create an immersive setting. The religion – of which the Cardinal is… well, Cardinal – is not only unnamed, but its tenets and structure are never explained or explored. Once again, we are presented with a monodimensional fantasy religion which is just there as a placeholder for a form of Christianity.
The most obvious way in which this harms the story and the world-building is twofold. Firstly, the Cardinal’s motivations are… what, precisely? Spreading the angel-gospel? Ensuring the Mage-Pope’s influence is dominant in the face of Angel-Protestant dissidents? Having the best make-up? All this and more is conspicuously not addressed in the book. Consequently, the religion has no character, and so nor does the Cardinal. And, indeed, nor does Liliath, especially, because the relationship between spirituality and magic is never explored. So much so that, apart from an initial appearance, priests vanish from the narrative early on, and (according to my e-book reader) they did not return until I was over 80% of the way through, at which point they were mentioned (as in, the narrator said, ‘there are some priests’), and then they vanished again. Why? What is their purpose? Do they conduct services? Preach? Celebrate sacraments? What is the point of them in a universe in which any Tom, Dick or Henri can summon an angel?
The second problem, is that – and I know this is going to shock and appall you – words have meanings.
A cardinal is not just a generic, high-ranking cleric. The history of the word is complex and not entirely clear-cut either in etymology or use, but for the purposes of this post it suffices to say that, by Richelieu’s time, cardinals were clergy with specific privileges and duties defined by their relationship to the Bishop of Rome (or Pope); and also that the word derives from cardo meaning the hinge of a door. Likewise, bishop comes from ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) meaning overseer, and priest comes from πρεσβύτερος (presbyter) or elder. Given that we see little praying, oversight, or voting for the next wizard-pope, it is quite hard to see what these words are doing. Indeed, it is hard to see what this clerical caste is doing at all, which is odd, because it would only have needed a little bit of work to transform them into, say, a specific stratum of mages who, for whatever reason (skill, age, social class) were admitted into a distinct order. At least then the priest moniker could have made some kind of sense: those who are aged by the angels literally become elders, even if previously they were not.
I could perhaps have breezed past this, but it seems something of a shame. The metaphysical reality of angels is not explored in any great depth, and usually only by Dorotea in a way which looks contrived. Even the terminology for angels – the alleged focus of the book – is not handled well. For example, the words seraphim and cherubim are used as though they were singular (as in, he is the seraphim Pnemuel), but they are both plurals, of seraph and cherub respectively. Likewise, the scholars in charge of learning how to heal people are called doctors and those who use magic to do so doctor-magisters, but doctor just means one who teaches, and was only by convention extended to physicians and later formalized in their titles. The original doctors were, as it happens, Christian clergy, as in the phrase, doctor of the Church. Likewise, magister also means one who teaches, not one who casts spells.
I held out until the end, wondering whether seraphim and cherubim might have their confusing nomenclature because they are composite beings or mystical hive-minds (as had been implied with Liliath’s multi-angel aura) but that did not come to pass. Ultimately, what should have been the simplest aspects of world-building and consistent nomenclature built upon real-world terms turned out to be messy and lacking in substance.
Returning to the topic of matriarchy briefly before moving on, having traditional gender roles as we recognize them but simply swapping the sexes between them is… fine, I suppose, although given how everyone seems to be thinking constantly about sexual flings it seems odd that the ramifications are never really explored. Indeed, I suspect that the attempts at titillation are at least partly hoping to ride along the coattails of A Game of Thrones, and partly more window dressing. Appropriate, given that the book expects the reader to believe that Rochefort and Dorotea fall in love with one another despite the former’s potentially abusive hold over the latter and dialogue which is about as racy as a WikiHow article on setting up a spreadsheet.
The window dressing continues elsewhere. Sarance’s population appears to be predominantly black. However, it comes across as though, late in the writing process, Nix thought, Oh no! If there are only white characters in this book, I will be sending the wrong message! and just changed all the descriptions about people’s appearances, but nothing else.
Now, people’s ethnicity does not need to serve the plot: that would be crude. People are psychosomatic unities, influenced – but not determined – by the cultures in which they live. Likewise, Nix is not obliged in his book to explore the timely but complex issues surrounding race, privilege, justice, and oppression. However, given that the novel appears to be trying to have science and magic co-exist (Simeon and Henri are scientists first and mages second, after all), this raises some questions regarding the people inhabiting Sarance’s West-European climate.
Higher melanin content in the skin occurs in order to protect people from the harmful rays of the sun. Assuming that the world of Angel Mage operates on a similar principle, then the nation of Sarance has been founded (or conquered in the past) by people from a much sunnier clime. Was this an ethnic diaspora? Deliberate colonization by a distant or defunct superpower? Migration of ancient peoples? Again, this could be an opportunity for interesting world-building, but it is simply presented to the reader and then left where it lies.
To be clear, it could well be that Nix just wanted to show his support for diversity in fantasy fiction, and that is fine, good, and even cause for celebration. I am not saying that there needs to be a narrative reason for non-white people to appear in fiction. What I am saying is that world-building is a process as much as an aggregate product, and given the other problems with Angel Mage’s world, the choice that Nix made about skin-colour in Sarance should not be read as a world-building decision. This is especially true because he makes gestures suggesting a subversion of our expectations in some places (regarding gender and race in this instance) but relies upon all our prejudices and stereotypes in others (regarding religion in this instance)
In essence, then, Angel Mage is a hoard of missed opportunities when it comes to world-building. Whatever the merits of the narrative might be, the world-building is all very superficial, a fact which is made all the more frustrating because the superficiality demonstrates the exciting potential in all the individual ideas. I find myself wondering whether Nix had a different book in mind, perhaps a series in which he could explore some of the ideas which he raises and discards in the same paragraph, like the mysterious origins of angels.
However, there is one thing – one very important thing – which Nix does well in his world-building, and that is having reasons why the wizards do not just rule as an invincible elite. Firstly, they pay a price in lifespan, which is a steep cost, and a powerful incentive to use their powers sparingly. Secondly, angels are limited by geography and scope. Thirdly, magic does not work on Refusers (a not inconsiderable proportion of the population) or beastlings. All of these combine in a relatively soft magic system to allow for drama, and the sense of tension and release which comes from thinking, ‘I wonder how they will get out of this one’. Despite all the missed opportunities in the book, take this message to heart: a soft magic system which nevertheless has clear limits can be a powerful narrative device, and an excellent scaffold on which to build a rich and surprising world.