Desert Isle Keeper
I stumbled across the book Archangel as a result of a conference I went to on the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. In no time at all I had read this book, its sequel, and much of Sharon Shinn’s backlist, which is, unfortunately, not nearly long enough. Sharon Shinn is a buried treasure and someone to watch. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully, and her books are equally satisfying to both fantasy and romance readers. Archangel is an excellent example of her storytelling prowess.
Archangel-elect Gabriel is preparing to begin his twenty-year term as ruler of Samaria, and he has any number of problems to solve. Under current Archangel Raphael’s rule, the country has become divided into factions; the rich have grown richer and the poor poorer. Also a repugnant slave trade has arisen and prospered, and many disenfranchised peoples are being murdered, or captured and sold as a result of it. It also looks like Raphael may not be so eager to step down from his position of power. But most pressing, Gabriel must locate his wife-to-be, his angelica, because he must marry her before the next Gloria, the ceremony at which he will officially become Archangel. Every year all of Samaria gathers to sing praises to the god, Jovah, to prove that Samaria is still in harmony so that Jovah will not destroy it.
Up until this point Gabriel has had enough on his mind without having to deal with a wife not of his choosing. But the angelica is required to lead the singing at the Gloria, and the Gloria is only six months away, so he goes to see the oracle to find out who she is. He expects that she will be of noble blood, of angel lineage and easy enough to find and woo. What he doesn’t expect is that Rachel, the bride Jovah has chosen for him, is of low station, and even more disconcerting, she’s nowhere to be found.
Rachel has been laboring as a slave in a rich merchant’s house for the past five years. Her life has been marked by tragedy, and she is very angry and bitter what has happened to her. She has no love for anyone and most especially not for the angels. So when Gabriel finally locates her and announces that she is to occupy the most exalted female role in Samaria, she is not inclined to accept his proposal. But she has no choice because Gabriel and all of Samaria depend on her obedience to Jovah’s will. Thus a complicated marriage of convenience is begun.
This book succeeds on so many levels. It is written in such beautiful, lyrical prose that reading it is just a joy. With the enchantment of her words Shinn draws you into her world and entices you to stay. I’ve read this book several times now, slowly and lingeringly, savoring the experience.
The world of Samaria is lovingly portrayed; it resembles the Old Testament kingdom of Israel, and most of the characters have biblical names. Samaria is richly drawn, and Shinn does not skimp on its characterization. The richness of the portrayal is undoubtedly aided by the its biblical overtones. There are faint echoes of Bible stories throughout – stories of Saul and David, Rachel and Leah, Esther, Judas and Lucifer. It is not surprising that Samaria seems magical, a place where miracles occur and Good and Evil are personified and locked in bitter struggle.
The strongest and most enjoyable part of this book is found in the characters of Rachel and Gabriel. They are both stubborn, intense, noble and complex. Gabriel is a hero’s hero, the kind of man whose bedrock is his faith and his integrity, the kind of man who would unhesitatingly lay down his life for his people. He is rigid and dogmatic and sure of his own opinion. He is also rather misanthropic and uncomfortable with any sort of familiarity. But he is a leader extraordinaire and absolutely devoted to the cause of right in Samaria. He’s difficult, but thoroughly good. And meeting and loving Rachel humbles him and shakes him to the core because all of the wonderful things he has to give are the things she doesn’t want.
Rachel is harder to like. She’s Prickly with a capital P. Over and over she thwarts Gabriel and the other angels just because she can and because it suits her to do so. But underneath her hard exterior is a woman who is yearning to love yet no longer trusts love or good fortune. And she is devoted to the poor and outcast and to making a difference in Samaria. She’s such an interesting character, and it’s fascinating to see her sort things out and affect change in her own life.
The book does have a few flaws. The lyrical prose occasionally slows down the narrative, and Rachel and Gabriel do spent quite a bit of the book apart. Also I wanted to smack Rachel toward the end of the story when she was choosing to be difficult just because. But it’s impossible to grade this as anything less than a DIK read. It’s so well written and thoughtful, it’s layered with history and theology and symbolism, and it has one of the best, most romantic endings I’ve ever read.
Earlier this year I granted Shinn’s latest book, Summers at Castle Auburn DIK status and said it was Shinn’s best effort yet. Now I am not so sure. When I reread Archangel I am struck again with its quality and insight and the beauty of its storytelling. If you asked me, I suppose I’d have to say that my favorite Shinn book is whatever book of hers I’m currently reading. If you like fantasy or science fiction mixed in with your romance, I couldn’t recommend any author more than Sharon Shinn, and reading this book would be an excellent way to introduce yourself to her work.