Archangel by Sharon Shinn (Samaria: Book 1)

Award-winning author Sharon Shinn delivers a strong novel in Archangel, the first in her unusual Samaria series, where Biblical mythology exists side by side with the remnants of a futuristic civilization, where a caste of angels guards over vying human cultures… where angels and mortals are encouraged to love, and the fate of the world rests on a song.

The angel Gabriel knows he must marry, for in six months the annual Gloria must be sung by the new Archangel and his human wife to ensure the prosperity of the land. His ordained bride is Rachel, a beautiful and spirited slave girl who wants only the freedom to live her life as she chooses. Liberated from slavery only to find herself in a loveless marriage of convenience, Rachel reluctantly accepts her new role, longing all the while to reunite with the nomadic Edori, her adoptive kinsmen, among whom all people are free and equal in the eyes of the god Jovah. Gabriel readily accepts Rachel despite her hot temper and tries to make her feel at home in the angel stronghold, but Rachel distrusts angels for personal reasons, and hides dark secrets beneath her strong exterior. The depraved Raphael poses an ever-growing threat; the current Archangel is reluctant to hand over the reign of Samaria to his young successor, and will do everything in his power to keep Gabriel and Rachel apart.

Sharon Shinn successfully takes familiar threads in the fantasy and romance genres and spins them into something quite original. Here we have a truly magical landscape peopled by diverse tribes rich with customs and shared traditions, the heroine as a former slave with a special destiny, power intrigues among the rich, a traditional villain who seeks to rule the world, and the classic struggle between good and evil upon which the fate of the world hangs. Readers of romance will no doubt recognize such tried-and-true elements as the marriage of convenience, the predestined lovers who argue about everything until they fall in love, the fiery heroine who is more than a match for her proud but noble hero. Shinn seems comfortable playing these conventions straight, letting her meticulous and fresh world building provide novelty to a story we’ve essentially read before. Yet she does manage to turn a few conventions on their heads. Rachel, despite her youth, is no awakening virgin but an experienced and world-weary woman. Gabriel is the virgin of the pair, a man who doesn’t immediately act upon his attraction to the heroine, a more humble character than the alpha heroes found in most romance novels.

Then there are the tantalizing trappings of science fiction: the god as an artificial intelligence watching over mankind, remnants of a forgotten space technology sprinkled throughout an old-fashioned landscape. Christian readers may also appreciate this story, as Shinn appears to use the vague science fiction premise of space colonization to explain the liberties she’s taken with Biblical material. The author posits a good many questions about faith in the book, stressing the importance of equality and peace among all nations and examining carefully the ethics of her angels, some of whom exercise their god-given powers well, while others abuse their elevated positions. The desert-wandering Edori can be seen as a positive example of modern Judaism, practicing an all-inclusive, unconstrained religion that focuses on faith and love. Rachel provides an interesting contrast that draws parallels to Old Testament Judaism. Hers is the voice of xenophobia and national pride, praying for vengeance upon the city of her slavery. She clings to a belief in Ysral, the promised land in which only Edori live. Her growing tolerance of other people is a subsequent thread throughout the book, something the angels she befriends must help her discover.

Though her characterizations are strong, Sharon Shinn doesn’t stretch them enough. Characters are depicted as simply good or bad. Raphael, for all his charisma, is a one-note antagonist, the standard villain who wants absolute power. The Jansai (desert merchants whose culture seems more or less Arab) are all greedy slave traders whereas the Edori are oppressed pacifists. Rachel is indeed a very complex character, but she is testy rather than plucky. She sets difficult, often selfish standards for Gabriel and is angry when he doesn’t set aside his leadership duties to “prove his love.” This makes for a heroine who is very genuine but almost too flawed. She’s also “special” in the way many fantasy heroines are special. Other characters are constantly extolling her virtues, whether it’s her beauty or her perfect singing voice. It’s hard to understand how her moody attitude earns her the friendship of almost everyone she meets.

The story also lacked a fulfilling romance. One expects more from a book in which angels are actively interested in pursuing relationships with mortals so that more angels will be born, a book in which the heroine enters into a marriage of convenience with the most handsome angel in the land. The premise of the novel hinges on Gabriel and Rachel’s relationship, yet they spend most of the book arguing or apart from each other, even though Rachel seems to have no trouble attracting potential suitors all over Samaria. The lovers’ problems are a realistic counterpoint to genre romance, yet I expected to see passion at some point, and in this regard Rachel and Gabriel left me cold.

These are minor setbacks, however. There is just enough love in here to satisfy younger readers. Adult readers will find the plot is both strong enough and thematically deep enough to outweigh the bloodless relationship. Archangel should appeal to most readers of romantic fantasy, fans of Juliet Marillier’s strong characterizations who want more overtly fantastical elements in their stories, and Sharon Shinn enthusiasts.

8/10 Archangel should appeal to most readers of romantic fantasy.

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