I’ve a confession to make. I’ve owned this book since late 2019… and I had not read it yet! It’s beautiful and intriguing but it’s A Chonker and last year was really not conducive to chonkers. I was motivated to use 2021 to get through the chonkers I’ve accumulated… and then the audiobook showed up on the library app, so I chose the easy way out!
Now that I’ve had a quick look inside the actual book, it’s absolutely gorgeous… and the map threw me off. I mean there were CLEAR references to something like 17th century France, with a capital called Lutace (Lutetia?) and a Zuiss republic and all that but… yeah I did NOT expect this:
Anyway, on to the review:
More than a century has passed since Liliath crept into the empty sarcophagus of Saint Marguerite, fleeing the Fall of Ystara. But she emerges from her magical sleep still beautiful, looking no more than nineteen, and once again renews her single-minded quest to be united with her lover, Palleniel, the archangel of Ystara.
A seemingly impossible quest, but Liliath is one of the greatest practitioners of angelic magic to have ever lived, summoning angels and forcing them to do her bidding.
Liliath knew that most of the inhabitants of Ystara died from the Ash Blood plague or were transformed into beastlings, and she herself led the survivors who fled into neighboring Sarance. Now she learns that angels shun the Ystaran’s descendants. If they are touched by angelic magic, their blood will turn to ash. They are known as Refusers, and can only live the most lowly lives.
But Liliath cares nothing for the descendants of her people, save how they can serve her. It is four young Sarancians who hold her interest: Simeon, a studious doctor-in-training; Henri, a dedicated fortune hunter; Agnez, an adventurous musketeer cadet; and Dorotea, an icon-maker and scholar of angelic magic. They are the key to her quest.
The four feel a strange kinship from the moment they meet, but do not know why, or suspect their importance. All become pawns in Liliath’s grand scheme to fulfill her destiny and be united with the love of her life. No matter the cost to everyone else. . .
I found it pretty hard to focus on the audiobook, but that’s more a me problem. The narrator was really good and I enjoyed the voices and accents quite a bit!
For the story itself – I had mixed feelings about it at first, we’re following the villain and I was not really sure what to expect from that. But she grows on you? like mold? She’s absolutely vile and cares for no-one, but she’s also charming, and that came across really well. I did believe at times that whatever she was trying to do would also, you know, end up helping other people.
I think the story became really good once we’re introduced to the four actual protagonists. They’ve got very distinct characters and their interactions were really enjoyable. They’re pretty much hostages of the situation, as much as they try to figure it out. It’s a nice change to have protagonists who’re not really in control – and following Liliath’s machinations at the same time was also really good for balance, as you’re not in the dark but know what’s happening and can root for the kids to figure it out… I especially enjoyed Dorotea’s story: she’s a scholar, imprisoned because she’s not summoning angels “the right way” so the Cardinal suspects her of being Liliath… which is very funny when you know Liliath is right under their noses. But Dorotea never really gives in and advocates for herself, and she’s the only one who has a bit of an inkling what’s going on. There were hints of a relationship between her and Rochefort, the Cardinal’s right hand woman, and I really enjoyed the way that went too. Rochefort clearly cared, but Dorotea (and the narrative) never lost track of the power imbalances there.
I did quite enjoy the references to the Three Musketeers (and seeing the map earlier just made that all the more clear and funny too): you’ve got a (female) Cardinal who’s not quite the enemy in this case but still very much Not An Ally (I still don’t know what I think of her. She was trying to do what’s right for the country but that does not make her good). You’ve got a Captain Dartagnan at the head of the musketeers, and our Four Musketeers themselves… Gascony becomes Bascony, etc. It was really entertaining, especially because it was always somehow subverted.
The magic itself was quite interesting, and there was a lot of thought gone into that bit of worldbuilding, with complexities and a lot of “norms” that clearly come from humans (and religion) and not necessarily the way it really works at all. I thought that was a really interesting concept.
Another thing I really loved was that it’s not just queernorm, it’s like gender doesn’t really matter? Someone on Goodreads said it’s like Nix tosses a dice to decide the gender of a protagonist and that’s that, and same for relationships. But it did feel a lot more purposeful than that. There’s something to say about having both a female Cardinal, a ruling Queen (with a useless King who’s only interested in money and sex… yeah most French kings weren’t much better), a female captain of the musketeers, a female captain of the Pursuivants (the Cardinal’s guards), a female antagonist, etc. One of our four characters is bi, the queen is really into women, and again there’s Dorotea and Rochefort, which is clearly a big part of the story even if it’s very tame.
I also really appreciated the way Nix goes into the Refusers, because everyone believed they (their ancestors actually) were cursed by their angel for being heretics, and use that as an excuse to abuse them and treat them like slaves, so that their siding with Liliath at the promise of getting their country back really made sense and they really aren’t the antagonists here.
Anyway that’s a big rant to say I really enjoyed the book, and I might have to read more by Garth Nix!
Get it from Waterstones
[…] Angel Mage (only very technically on this list. Audiobook, SFF): I did really enjoy it but it pales compared to all the other great books I read this month! Full review here […]