When a book makes the reader work just to keep up with the story, it can be frustrating. Some authors like to throw all sorts of neologisms, strange characters, and unique ideas at a reader without much context. Archangel is a tough read at times but possesses some unique ideas and an original story that makes it worth the effort. With topics ranging from genetic engineering to ecology, author Marguerite Reed wrote an ambitious debut novel.
Set in the far future after Earth has become a wasteland, Archangel takes place on an alien planet called Ubastis. Vashti Loren is a colonist and xenobiologist studying the planet’s indigenous life, which includes plants and some dangerous animals. Scientists and explorers like Loren are there to ensure colonization is possible and safe for the people and the indigenous life. They do not want to make the same mistake they did on Earth. Loren is also the widow of a famous colonial leader, who was brutally murdered. The killer, a genetically engineered super soldier called a beast, is the center of the story. As the novel begins, a Ubasti dignitary smuggles a beast onto the planet, traumatizing Loren at the sight of it. Events will force her to get past her hatred of beasts, and work with it to help save her planet.
The first thing that struck me about the novel was the unstable narrator. Loren is erratic in her thinking and prone to abrupt mood swings. The people around her seem to give her room to behave erratically, due the tragic loss of her husband and the unwanted celebrity thrust upon her following his death. The attention is unwanted, judging from her general “fuck the world” attitude. The instability made some parts of the novel difficult to follow or comprehend.
If you can get past the emotional turbulence, you will come to like and admire her. Loren is intelligent and strong. Not only is she a celebrity, she is the only licensed hunter on the planet. The expeditions into the Ubasti wild are sometimes for sport but are predominantly for research purposes. The carcasses are brought back to the labs for dissection. Her stereotype-shattering personality is complemented well with her surprising insight into the events unfolding around her. Interestingly, she is brutally honest with herself, aware her behavior is erratic, and threatens her relationship and custody situation with her daughter Bibi. The planet has a very intrusive government, with the authority to remove Bibi with little cause and force Loren through therapy or re-education as they call it.
While Loren’s behavior is understandable, the behavior of the other characters is baffling. Several of the other characters from Ubasti also have abrupt changes in mood and nasty, sometimes vulgar outbursts. Dialogue and mannerisms shifted a lot, creating sudden tension then dissipating into nothing, leading to incoherent exchanges. Some characters were absolutely awful, in particular the offworlders. It was difficult to understand or accept their extraordinary rudeness and hostility, especially in the situations that called for neither.
Their attitudes laid out clear ideological lines between the eco-friendly, isolationists and those wanting to move the rest of the human race onto Ubastis, regardless of the consequences for the local environment. The Malthusian themes are presented in such a painfully one-sided way, it was clear where the author stood. The use of straw men for antagonists was disappointing and was a missed opportunity to explore the themes with greater depth.
Ubastis has an interesting mixture of Muslim, Christian, and secular elements to its culture as well as a very progressive communal society. It was refreshing to read about a non-American, non-White future society. For me, this might’ve been the most interesting part of the novel. The author clearly intended it to be the ideal, utopian society implementing progressive and collectivist policies. People refer to each other as “citizen” and child-rearing is a shared responsibility among many people. Killing is forbidden, whether human or animal. Even self-defense is a questionable justification for homicide. Hunting is considered abhorrent to many citizens but is necessary for research. Individuals need permission to procreate, and political leaders conduct psychological examinations of citizens.
The writing was strong and at times beautiful but the author made a habit of unnecessarily using obscure words. Some seem to come straight from graduate school exams, such as lugubrious. She also introduces several neologisms that require the reader to use context to figure out what she is talking about. I’m also not clear on where the title Archangel comes from. I don’t recall it coming up in the book.
Unfortunately, the ending was anticlimactic and failed to conclude the outstanding conflicts in the story. The novel reads like it is built on some thorough research, with the exception of these final scenes where the author attempted to depict some sort of political hearing. As a result, Archangel is a setup for a sequel and not a strong stand alone novel.
I think many readers will enjoy the unique world-building as well as the complex feelings of the narrator, while some may be annoyed that the novel doesn’t have more of a conventional sci-fi style to it. My individual experience with the book was mixed. At the same time, I appreciated the novel’s rich detail, and how it avoided typical sci-fi plot devices. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel this unique. While it didn’t move me personally, I think many others will love it.