by: Sharon Shinn
I decided to reread Archangel when I ran across it at Barnes and Noble. I had mixed feelings about it last time which I hoped to resolve.
The book is set in the world of Samaria, where angels and humans live together in harmony guided by Jevoh, the almighty, all-powerful god. The angels speak to the god for humans, interceding by prayer in the form of song. The beginning of the book hints the Jevoh is actually the spaceship Jehovah, in orbit around the planet, which is why the flying angels’ voices are able to reach the ship and receive a response whereas the humans’ voices don’t, with a few exceptions. The people of Samaria don’t know this; they think the god is real.
The premise of the book is really interesting. The peoples of Samaria have a whole religion based around a ship, which is programmed to respond to song. Yet there’s a lot of talk about fearing, loving, and respecting the god, and being able to feel the presence of the god inside oneself. I’m not quite sure what to make of that; on one hand, those who don’t follow the religion of the planet are clearly the bad guys, but on the other hand, the whole religion is based around a ship floating in outer space. Is it a critique of religion? Or is the book saying the foundation of the religion is less important than the faith and belief of the followers? Most of the world exists in a Catholic Church-like hierarchy, but there is a group of nomadic people, the Edori, who believe the god is equally close and listens equally to all. (Although you can conclusively prove they are wrong.)
Throughout the book, there is the implication that morality cannot exist outside of the religion in which the people believe – Jevoh calls most intensely for peace and harmony among the people – but the whole religion is based on a lie. Is the book saying religion is necessary; that people cannot exist with a punishment-based morality system? Or it is trying to say it is inconsequential what the god is, as long as following its will brings about goodness? I’m not religious myself, so in one light I think the book is fascinating and in the other, I think it is dead wrong.
There’s also attempted critiques on capitalism and money, but they are inconsistent and not well-developed.
I entirely dislike the two main characters. The book follows the story of Gabriel, Archangel-to-be, and the woman Jevoh picks for his wife, Rachel. Gabriel is ruled by pride and a rigid sense of right and wrong. He is completely unable to compromise or even be diplomatic. This, in my opinion, makes him a terrible person to lead. He is trying to rid the world of exploitation, slavery, and inequality, so good, and yet the way he handles it leads to unnecessary conflict. Were he more flexible in his understanding of the world, the situation could have ended much differently, and for the better.
Rachel is ruled by emotions – driven almost completely by anger, fear, and pride. Much of the conflicts between them are caused miscommunication or a refusal to communicate, which is my least favorite plot device in the entire world. It is not that hard to talk to people! Though she is strong-willed and independent, she also lacks the ability to compromise, empathize, or communicate and is, again, a terrible person to lead a world. In fact, together they may be one of the worse ruling couples since Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI, although the book doesn’t acknowledge any of their weaknesses as real hindrances to doing their job.
So at the end, I’m still conflicted about this book. It has some interesting things to say about religion, certainly, but I find the main characters, while well-written and -developed, awful. If you like science fiction dealing with religion, or romances with strong female characters where miscommunication is a central conflict, you should give this book a try. If you think that adults in positions of power should be able to communicate, or if you don’t like religion playing a leading role in your books, than this may not be the book for you.