A Plague of Angels by Sheri S Tepper

Rating 7.5/10
My angel plagued me until I read this

Anyone who has read my previous reviews will know that my choice of reading matter is often influenced by recommendations from my lady. A Plague of Angels has been one of her most frequent recommendations, so when the chance came I of course weighed straight in. Whether I myself would recommend it quite as stringently despite many exceptional qualities might be another matter.

One of the most exceptional things about A Plague of Angels, and indeed a key fact about the story; is its setting. The book begins with fourteen-year-old Abasio leaving his quiet farm life to journey away to seek his fortune like the best fantasy protagonist, (he even spots an orphan child with a mysterious destiny along the way). Unexpectedly however, he runs into the driver of a broken-down truck who takes him to the city, a crumbling concrete jungle of warring gangs, drugs, high tech weapons and general depravity. Meanwhile, we flash back to the orphan growing up in an archetypal village full of people with names and assigned roles including Oracle, Hero and Fool (not to mention Orphan herself), where monsters such as griffins and ogres live in the countryside and every fairy tale cliché seems to be a reality of daily life.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that this world is not some distant fantastic kingdom or yet an alternative earth, but our own world well in the future after most of humanity has left to explore the galaxy. It also seems that much of this world and the ways in which it is being run is not as we would expect, from book burners who attempt to destroy any books over 50 years old to prevent hatreds festering, to organizations like the Sisters to trees and Animal masters who seem to be trying to establish a balance between humanity and nature and redressing the mistakes of the past.

With its odd mix of ancient super science, pastoral communities which range from isolated farms and small towns to clan societies based on American Indian culture, fantasy archetypes and destroyed crumbling urban landscapes, I can rarely think of an occasion when a world has fascinated me this much or when I’ve been quite as unable to predict what I might run into around the next corner.

Tepper also writes with a masterful shifting style that alters in emphasis, detail and rhythm according to the scene and focus. Beginning briefly and almost fable like in her pointed descriptions, yet sometimes dipping into the deeply poetic, dryly and genuinely funny, sweeping and epic or brutally stark, the book's overall style is just as diverse as its landscapes. I admire how Tepper is able to pick out details often just for fun or for effect, such as her ironic descriptions and personalities of some of the more fantastical characters like the earnest, breast beating archetypal Hero, or amusing descriptions of legendary monsters, who of course must greet any humans they wish to befriend with “not eating you”.

One of the book's most colourful, and indeed most memorable stylistic touches is the book's villain, Quince Ellel, who makes Bavmorda, the villain from the cult classic Willow look like someone’s kindly aunty. Like Bavmorda, Ellel is seeking for an orphaned child whom she believes will insure her domination over the world. However, where Bavmorda had to rely upon her thuggish generals and ultimately turn coat daughter, Ellel's minions are truly horrific, the very twisted and profoundly disturbing walkers who blight everything they touch. It is the exploration of Ellel's character, her fruitless search for Orphan, her status as an outcast among the four families in one of the few scientific enclaves left on the devastated earth, that does add some colour to earlier sections of the book, since while Tepper's style is generally extremely good her pacing is somewhat erratic.

Where in some authors pacing problems are due to possible inequities in the writing, with Tepper it seemed that at least some of the points where the book dragged are because A Plague of Angels is rather unapologetically pedagogical, i.e., Tepper very much has points to make and she makes them perhaps too emphatically. Tepper's impression of city life is unashamedly grim, with drugs, sadism, lots of violent gang war and commonplace fatal sexually transmitted diseases (iddies as they're called). Gangers are portrayed as endlessly misogynistic, with women held literally as property; existing either to provide income or pleasure as whores or to breed children to strengthen the gang. While Tepper’s cool and nasty descriptions of all of this certainly make for something atmospheric, the sheer quantity, and the fact that the plot seemed to drag over such details did make this section feel a little indulgent.

Likewise, when later we meet a society who are trying to establish balance and live in harmony with the earth Tepper spends considerable time explaining and praising their philosophy, including such ideas as segregating the sexes and viewing monogamous marriage as an impossibility since men are said to be incapable of sticking to one partner. Indeed, while Tepper does not show quite as blatant misandry (hatred of men), as some feminist science fiction writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley or Doris Lessing, she does seem to have a very strong dislike of male sexuality. Though Tepper is too careful a writer to make all her men scumbags, it is notable that most of her decent male characters are uninterested in women (often being old men or boys), and even among main characters male desire is shown very negatively or indeed skated over (the closest thing we get to a developing romance with a decent man barely mentions that aspect of things), indeed a rather unfortunate recurring metaphor is comparing men to "roosters”; crowing their own praises while kicking hens into crouching submission. It is worth noting that my lady believes Tepper was here speaking in a primarily universe sense regarding the unquestionably unpleasant Gangers, though the fact that the same metaphor and philosophy is voiced by many characters and specifically said to be about men generally does make me disagree with Mrs. Dark’s interpretation here.

Just as Tepper’s sometimes belaboured social examples often slow the plot, so her moralizing on occasions gets in the way of developing characters, for example when the otherwise comparatively likeable and decent fourteen-year-old Abasio, on his first night in Ganger hands if not actually rapes, at least engages in entirely one sided unresisting intercourse with a sobbing virgin concubine with absolutely no remorse, though he abstains from whoring after that for fear of diseases.

Yet despite this predilection to preach, Tepper's characters are for the most part complex, admirable, and embarked upon fascinating journeys. I particularly liked how Tepper took many of the trappings of a traditional fairy tale or fantasy story and gave them a decidedly unique twist, such as the odd and strangely delivered prophecy Orphan receives, the fairy tale like consequences of kind actions, or Tepper’s unique and yet wonderfully earthy depiction of fantasy creatures.

Even in terms of her plain intention to deliver a social message, when not engaged in character based misandry, Tepper does have many intriguing points to make which she often delivers with a rather wicked sense of irony. For instance her explanation that the future world is held back from nationalist hatreds by changing the names of countries so nobody is able to fight over a sacred land, or her casually tossed off idea of black and white clans who are constantly at war and yet actually have the same skin colour due to interbreeding.

The book’s ending again leaves me feeling a bit ambivalent. Tepper’s truly epic writing, the choices and consequences left up to her characters, the eventual fate of the wonderfully loathsome Ellel and her fulsome depiction of a truly amazing and tragic battle has a devastating emotional punch.

Likewise, her conclusion, the significance of the title "A Plague of Angels” and how her ideas finally tied themselves together had much to recommend it.

The problem however is that Tepper's recurring misandry and at least a few instances of her moralizing rather interrupted the flow of things. At one point the reiteration of the rooster metaphor spoiled what should have been a beautiful character moment, and her final ecological message was dimmed somewhat by her equating over population with male desire for virility and children as a way of controlling women, indeed I find it interesting (especially in a book written in the nineties), that she only ever talks of the mess "man" has made of the world and her "balanced society" though professing gender equality seems to be entirely ruled by women.

In general I am not sure about A Plague of Angels. On the one hand, there is a great deal that is brilliant. A far-flung fantasy in an intriguing world with characters who you grow to love, and when you add in some of Tepper’s more adroitly delivered and relevant messages you are left a pretty awesome book and one I can well understand captivating my lady.

On the other hand, you have a rather dour, rigidly sexist message often bogging down the plot and sometimes undercutting beautiful moments, indeed there were occasions when I had to actively try to forget Tepper’s' previous misandric comments and simply will myself to experience in order to get most from the book.

Likely to Tepper’s everlasting ire, I would compare Plague of Angels to the little girl with the little curl in the nursery rhyme. When it is good, which indeed much of it is, it is very, very good, however when it is bad, or at least preachy to the point of unpleasant partisanship it is horrid.

However if you can ignore, or at least scoot past the horrid, the very, very good is certainly well worth reading.

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