I happened to have been reading A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel's massive novel about the French Revolution, just before I took up C. L. Anderson's Bitter Angels. I mention this because Mantel's book, like Bitter Angels, has a complex, twisty plot and dozens of characters—but with a handy chart at the front of her book to help us keep track of the multitudinous characters. About halfway through Bitter Angels, I became so desperately confused that I found myself reaching for a pencil to create such a chart inside its front cover.
This excess of interchangeable characters is the main flaw in Anderson's otherwise interesting novel. At least four main characters and several minor characters get a turn narrating the story, but it's hard to spot the difference between their voices. Their situations are different enough: the main characters include Terese, a Guardian immortal halfway through her second century of life; Emiliya, a debt-slave raised in privation on a prison planet; and Amerand, a Security officer desperate to find and recover his mother, lost in bondage. But even the villain, Torian Erasmus, a centuries-old immortal so ruthless he does not flinch at faking a war (along with its attendant thousands of deaths) in order to lure the Guardians into his grasp, sounds very like his fellows. Moreover, in this relatively slim novel, many characters seem superfluous: does Terese really need to have three children, and if so, do we really need to meet them all?
A similar profligacy mars the plot, which shuttles constantly between multiple moons, ships, and space stations in the Erasmus system, as well as visiting various cities on Earth. Okay, yes, real life has many people and many places in it. But stories aren't the real world, and this abundance of settings drains Anderson's narrative of force for (in most cases) no significant gain. Why take us to five separate Erasmus moons? Some of the time might have been more profitably spent on her central scenes and characters.
Once we get past these issues, however, the book works well on many levels.
First, Anderson trusts her readers. She never tells anything that she can show instead. Though we are occasionally lost because of this—I was about fifty pages into the book before I figured out that the Saints and the Guardians were working for the same organization—this is a strength of the book, not a weakness, given that it echoes the experience the characters themselves are going through. (Everyone except Torian Erasmus, who is doing the confusing, is perpetually confused in this novel. Even Torian gets confused occasionally.)
Anderson's world-building is also excellent. The Pax Solaris, an organization that enforces peace in the universe—this riff on the Pax Romana is intriguing, as are the scenes where Anderson demonstrates how such an organization would function. Those who do the work of the Pax Solaris are called Saints, and there are, apparently, two levels of Saints: those who bring general aid and comfort to the suffering; and the Guardians, who go to "hot spots," where war looks as though it might be about to break out, and stop that war from happening. Another nice touch in the book is the tension between the regular Saints and the Guardians. Apparently the Guardians get more resources and have more freedom to act than do the general troops; also, the Guardians are among those few who are "licensed immortals." Immortality does exist in this universe, but not everyone has it. I did want to hear more about these licensed immortals (I love the detail of Terese's husband being a "Van Helsing"; that is, a Immortality Infractions Investigator), as well as about the Companions, a kind of AI implanted in a Guardian's head to provide data, friendship, and on-going therapy; but Anderson tends to under- rather than over-explain, a narrative choice I can certainly understand.
On that same note, Anderson also does a good job with the economics of her worlds: for instance, she doesn't insert lectures about why a slave system can't compete with a free labor system. She just shows the high cost in overseers (Clerks, they're called in the Erasmus system) necessary to keep the slaves oppressed, not to mention all the rebellious workers one has to execute, and lets the reader draw the obvious conclusion.
As for the plot, its flaws mainly have to do with motive. I was never clear on why Torian Erasmus felt he needed to thin his family herd; further, I could not see why the slaves in the Erasmus system just didn't leave. It seemed apparent that they could ask for asylum from the Saints. Wouldn't you think this would get around? It's explained that their families are their hostages, which I suppose is plausible; but it's also explained that their families sell themselves into bondage to give their children a chance. (Amerand's parents buy his berth into the Security Academy this way.) Wouldn't parents also urge their children to seek asylum? I'd expect a river of refugees out of the system, frankly.
Aside from these quibbles, the plot is well-built. Bitter Angels is one of those intricate constructions that keeps the characters running up blind alleys until, in the final chapters, a new understanding of crucial data changes both the reader's and the main characters' understanding of everything. This burst of enlightenment goes a long way toward making the conclusion work. Also, the arguments made by Terese to Amerand in the last pages, outlining the useless nature of revenge, are not just fitting, given the organization she works for, but both serious and grimly realistic. It is in these pages that the book really comes alive. It's just a shame that for all the invention in the book, there aren't more moments of such character-focused dramatic intensity.
Kelly Jennings teaches writing and English in Northwest Arkansas. She is an assistant editor at Crossed Genres.