Archangel—"Book One of the Chronicles of Ubastis"—is Marguerite Reed's debut novel and could usefully be described as Ecological Space Opera. It addresses the never-not-relevant themes of nature and nurture and the fundamental codependency between creation and destruction, so it certainly isn't lacking in ambition regarding the big-ticket items. However, we're going to begin at a more personal level and talk about the style, as Archangel is written in the first person and first person narrators are tricky things. Get them right and they are perhaps the most memorable and effective way a story can be told, but get them wrong and there are few surer paths to disrupting suspension of disbelief.
Both these outcomes stem from the way that first person narration demands the reader project themselves into the head of the narrator, a projection that requires the author to absent themselves as much as possible lest they come across as a third-wheel, distracting from the intimacy between character and reader. While a young narrator aimed at a young audience can often get away with telling her tale apropos of nothing (I'm looking at you, Ms. Everdeen), as both parties become more psychologically developed/rigid it appears to be increasingly difficult to rationalize being inside another fully-formed adult's head just because, and thus we require such devices as false memoir or 'translation' to explain away the author. There are, of course, exceptions to this explanatory necessity, but these exceptions are telling: it's quite easy to believe that, for example, Patrick Bateman (American Psycho, 1991) is narcissistic enough to narrate his life to himself, while the various narrators in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) inhabit a text which not only purposefully draws on a metatextual commentary aimed at allowing a previously voiceless character to be heard, but is also a dislocated fever-dream from start to finish. In both books the irrationality of theme and technique are complementary and mutually enhancing.
This brings us to Vashti Loren, Archangel's narrator and protagonist. A xenobiologist hand-picked for the advance colonization of Ubastis, a planet deemed humankind's last chance to escape a benighted Earth, she's as rational, forthright, and mature as they come. She's also prone to giving us passages like this:
Anyone not living on a rock had seen the downs from the Kashmiri Offensive, Idaho Port, the colonists smeared in the bungle that was Salaam. Beast units out-marched, out-smarted, out-slaughtered their Natch and Enhanced opponents in conditions that would reduce a Tilden robot to alloy jackstraws. (p. 9)
Like a fair proportion of the opening chapters this is on the word-salady side of the menu, but it's an entirely reasonable way of establishing backstory and certainly not without precedent in the annals of SF. However, absent any sort of explanatory device we must assume that what we're reading is Vashti's internal monologue, and as such it doesn't quite ring true. We readers apparently were living on a rock and thus need to be informed of what is clearly common knowledge, but why would she be repeating this information to herself? In some ways her personality and job as a researcher permit a tendency to explicitly state what she already knows, but while a line like "Both she and I possessed epicanthal folds" (p. 19) might aim to evoke scientific precision, you can't help wondering if someone under less obvious pressure to crowbar in significant details might have thought something like, "Our eyes look similar." Likewise, her frequent forays into more figurative language regularly waver either side of the line between poetic—"This was the dreaming gray of dawn, the color of the silence before the beloved speaks" (p. 39)—and overcooked—"The sun reposed in the sky at an angle that set the glass ablaze" (p. 98). Taken in isolation some of these flights of lyricism are enchanting, with evocations of the lush yet threatening natural abundance of a new world that approach those of Rhys herself, but the tonal shifts they engender can be a touch jarring and often leave you questioning just how much of what is being said belongs to the character and how much to her creator, and what space is left into which the reader might project themselves. Two's company, three's a crowd.
In fairness, a completely consistent narrator would be inordinately dull and Vashti is nothing if not a woman of contradictions, laying claim to the titles of both "Doctor" and "Commander" and so embodying the main thematic concern of the book: the struggle between the urge to nurture and the urge to destroy. As a field scientist she is one of the few colonists with permission to use firearms, for conducting lethal research on the equally lethal local megafauna, and as the colony is chronically underfunded (curiously so, given its professed importance for the future of humanity) Vashti often finds herself supplementing its income by taking offworlders on glorified hunting safaris. She occasionally tells of this and other aspects of her tale in flashback: how she came to be on this planet as a member of a teenage expeditionary force; how she came to love its ecology and the much older man who led them there; how she became his wife, mother to his child, and protector of his legacy following his murder by a "Beast" (a genetically enhanced super-soldier). The obviously retrospective nature of these sections means that as a narrator she can more overtly narrate, and, thus freed from the burden of balancing necessary exposition against plausible internal monologue, these sections work very well: a recounting of her first sexual liaison with her husband-to-be stands out as a moving and almost painfully accurate depiction of the frustrated incoherence of teenage longing.
Fortunately Reed is clearly of the rip-it-off-quickly school of exposition, and after a couple of chapters the plot kicks into gear as various off-world forces push the pace for large-scale colonization and a rogue Beast appears on the scene. Vashti then finds herself facing the action with no more prior knowledge than the reader, and from here on the narration sits much more believably, as both she and we discover how events unfold in tandem. While occasional motes of foreshadowing do still draw unwanted attention to the contrived nature of the narrative device ("I did not see, then, how I myself failed to escape the trap" [p. 146]) they also serve to flag up that, blinded by her immediate desire for vengeance, from about halfway on Vashti is consistently a couple of steps behind both the other characters and the reader in seeing how things will play out, despite her nebulous future vantage-point. This latter effect is no bad thing, as while there's little doubt about what is going to happen (the Beast aside, the antagonists are uniformly one-dimensional and come dangerously close to moustache-twirling), the suspense lies in seeing how Vashti will react when she too comes to the conclusions that have been apparent to those unafflicted by the red mist. In fact the pacing and tension are skillfully managed throughout: the central storyline is strong and, at just under 300 pages, the book avoids the traditional Space Opera Bloat, moving from A to B to C with a refreshing focus and sense of purpose.
Taken as plot-driven SF then, this is a solid debut with clear structural strengths that overcome less favorable stylistic tics, and that promises well for future installments. However, given this book is almost literally about worldbuilding it behooves us to look at those aspects in a bit more depth. "Eclectic" is probably the best word to use here; there are some very nice throwaway ideas (I particularly liked the notion of soybeans as the enabling crop for humankind’s galactic expansion), and an albeit slightly hand-wavy concept of genetic engineering that neatly enhances the book's central theme of nurture versus destruction, or, to throw in a couple more Cartesian dichotomies, civilization versus savagery and humanity versus nature. Everyone exists at various levels of "enhancement," ranging from unaltered "Natches" to the maximally experimental Beasts, though most people exist somewhere in between, having been altered to subdue their more impulsive tendencies. Vashti is a Natch (natch), and thus falls under almost constant suspicion for her supposed propensity for violence, as do the Beasts at the other end of the scale for more messily visceral reasons.
Much like Vashti herself (non-practicing Christian, East Asian facial features, presumably and perhaps significantly named for the Persian queen from Hebrew scripture who was banished for defying her husband's orders), the society on Ubastis exists as a post-ethnic melting pot: broadly based on Islamic codes of personal propriety, its component parts seem to be drawn from whatever Reed's magpie eye alighted on:
"Na zdravi," said Andreas.
"Skål," I said. We drank... (p. 144)
Scandinavian and Central European toasts, South Asian daywear ("the bruise-blue salwar kamiz" [p. 143]), Japanese snacks: it would be easier to list cultures that aren't alluded to. Filching whatever takes your fancy from cultures that are not yours is a delicate game to play, but is largely successful here as none of these appropriations are individually significant. This sounds slightly perverse, I recognize, but the colonists could nibble gravlax while raising their glasses to "kanpai" and the sum effect would be similar. By existing as elements of a cultural kaleidoscope they delineate between the freedoms of the periphery against the oppressions of the core, so highlighting exactly where the battle-lines really are: between those who would seek to protect the planet and those who would exploit it (or between nurture and destruction, and, well, you get the idea). More classical and mythological allusions are just as manifold: from Alexander to Zeus via Charlemagne, Sekhmet and, of course, Bast. Conspicuous by her absence from this grab-bag pantheon is Gaia, and from the moment in Chapter One it's revealed that Vashti caused something of a scandal by posing for a photoshoot whilst nude and pregnant it's obvious who's supposed to be playing the Earth Mother role, however grudgingly she might accept it. It will be interesting seeing to what degree this set-up gets expanded or subverted in the following books, not least because in the real world Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis (essentially that life begets life) has taken a bit of a battering since it was first proposed and it seems this series will eventually demand a post-colonial reading: terra nullius is never truly null and the begetting all too often erases the begotten.
In the here and now, however, Archangel has understandably more immediate aims and by many metrics achieves them admirably. While the stylistic execution could cohere more seamlessly the story itself provides sufficient impetus to push the characters and the reader through to the inevitable cliffhanger ending. More excitingly, Reed has scattered a thematic seedbank in some very fertile territory, and for all that some have fallen on stony ground the first crop is substantial enough to suggest that, given the resources to mature properly, we could expect a bumper harvest in a few seasons' time, soybeans and all.
K. Kamo has a master's degree in globalization and teaches in Japan, facts that are more related in theory than in practice. He blogs at this is how she fight start and occasionally tweets. He also regrets not choosing a less abstruse pseudonym.