Fiction Reviews

Principles of Angels

(2008) Jaine Fenn, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 311 pp, ISBN 978 0 575 08329 5

This novel and its sequel Consorts of Heaven (2009) initiate a series set in a future where humanity occupies a region of interstellar space once dominated, a thousand years before, by entities called the Sidhe who can pass for human, but have the mental power to compel us to obey them. Note the present tense: it is believed with the force of a myth that the Sidhe are extinct, but both novels turn on the revelation that they are not. Different groups of people find this out, but the link between them is that a major character of 'Principles' is the sister of one in 'Consorts'.

Principles of Angels is set in Khesh City on the planet Vellern, one of the Confederacy of Three. The city is a Sidhe construct, a disc mounted on a spike “three dozen heartbeats” above the red rocky surface, which is supposed to be uninhabitable, ‘too small for terraforming’ – yet the atmosphere around Khesh and down below is breathable, which suggests there should be oceans, if not forests and savannahs, somewhere on the planet (same problem as with Arrakis in Dune).

The biome of Khesh itself also seems too simple. Its upper surface has beautiful buildings, gardens and public spaces, while the underside is occupied by scavengers. There is much emphasis on recycling water and processing fat and human waste. There are hunters in the Undertow who pursue 'meatbabies' with 'twisted limbs and simple minds, but they were more or less human', the other food down there is fungal mash, and water is carried in skins – what of? But there seems to be no other animal life, insects, nor parasites or vermin, despite the squalor of the Undertow, and the Topside food is recycled or imported. There are biologically enhanced people like the Angels of the title and the Screamers (from another city, Yazil), but the only non-human being in the place seems to be a winged, resident alien.

The Angels are agents of the Topside Ministers, who run a curious democracy powered by assassination dictated by popular vote. Into this society comes Elarn, a professional singer whose secret mission is to locate a missing sister, Lia, a.k.a. Nual. She’s adopted by Salik Vidoran, a Minister who’s just escaped a ‘removal’, and who employs Nual as an Angel, along with Taro, a disadvantaged youth from the Undertow, and Scarrion, a Screamer who has killed Taro’s mother. As usual with a plot of this structure, we jump from the viewpoint of one character to another as the machinations of these different individuals (including the alien) and others bring them into conflicts and alliances, ultimately defeating a plot to destroy the city. In the process it becomes clear that the Sidhe do survive and are still active in human affairs, with several of the characters acting under their compulsion.

Both this novel and Consorts of Heaven are well-written and worth reading, even if the plot structures are a touch familiar. Either could be read on its own. But having read them in sequence, and compared my reaction to 'Consorts' with Lawrence Osbourn’s in Interzone, July-August 2009, I feel that I got more from it because I recognised the references to Elarn and Raul as they came up, as well as the further revelations about the Sidhe and their interactions with mankind.

Duncan Lunan

Tony has also previously reviewed Principles of Angels.

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