The novels of Garth Nix have provided me with a successful blend of fantasy and romance in the past, so I was excited to try his new series set in an entirely new fantasy world.
After unleashing an angelic plague that turned the entire population of Ystara into either ravening beastlings or piles of dead gray ash, Liliath abandoned the country with a band of followers and set herself to sleep for over a century. She reawakens in neighboring Sarance with a plan to lead the low-caste Refusers, descendants of her exiles, back to Ystara. Liliath’s plot requires the help of angels, the Sarancian elite, and four ordinary Sarancians – the musketeer Agnes, the doctor Simeon, the accountant Henri, and the icon-maker Dorotea. Whether any of these parties know what they’re involved in (or even that they’re involved) is another question entirely…
What’s great about this book:
- The worldbuilding. Angelic magic is fascinating, from the way it’s invoked (icons) to the cost it incurs (hours to years of a summoner’s life, depending on the powers of the angels). The Refusers and their low-caste status add moral ambiguity to the ‘good guys’ Sarancian side.
- The setting. What fun to read about a 1600s-inspired fantasy setting, from the long heavy wigs and high heels to the gunpowder and artillery. The characters are also described as having a wide range of skin tones. While I enjoyed the political maneuvering of Sarance and its fragmented government, unfortunately, the author didn’t go anywhere with it.
- The women! It’s great that characters are by default female – ruling Queens, female Cardinals, female military – in the way they are generally male by default. The two best characters in the book are female: the villain Liliath is brilliant and powerful and scheming and quite frankly five times as competent as anybody else in this story. Dorotea, one of the four, is a great abstracted-genius character, a type which typically is restricted to males, and an interesting foil to Liliath.
- The depictions of sexuality. It’s lovely to see a YA fantasy where two women have a relationship with sexuality-neutral challenges (Rochefort is Dorotea’s jailer, and vaguely concerned that Dorotea might be plotting to destroy Sarance). Bisexuality is also casually normalized, with Simeon having had male lovers and the married-to-a-man Queen of Sarance regularly having a female ‘favorite’.
What needed work:
- The other three Musketeers. In the introduction, the author describes his desire to re-interpret a fantasy Three Musketeers. Unfortunately, like the many Austen adaptations that can’t figure out what to have their Lydia Bennet do in the modern age, Nix let himself be driven by the concept instead of letting the story work organically. Agnez and Henri are two-dimensional: Agnez the hothead, Henri the bean-counter. The healer Simeon, while more interesting than the other two, still has no arc. The characters are set up to have alliances to the different factions of the Sarancian government, but they never are forced to choose between those and each other. Which leads to…
- The pacing. This is a lonnnnnnng book, and it drags in places. All of the time spent on Agnez, Henri, and Simeon feels wasted, since these characters never develop, and the climax requires Dorotea alone. Generally, I think YA marketing forces series and trilogies where they are not needed to tell the story, but this is a rare case where the book either needed to be cut down, or needed to be longer and split.
What has disappointed me about YA lately is the carnage and bloodbath arms race that has drastically cut into the number of books that are suitable for the young Young Adults, the middle schoolers. This book fills a gap, being inclusive of race, gender, and sexuality, but also not too brutal for the twelve-to-fourteen set. With a bit better editing and tighter plotting, Angel Mage could have been even better, but Garth Nix remains a solid author to recommend for young teens.