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Principles of Angels cover

A proof copy being what it is, it always seems churlish to comment on its errors. Jaine Fenn's Principles of Angels (or Principals of Angels, depending on whether you believe its cover or spine), however, succeeded so completely in awakening my inner churl that I'm happy to point out that this proof is one of the least finished I've ever come across, with everything from the text formatting to the spelling of the title suffering inconsistencies of an impressive order. My favourite misjudgement has to be one of the marketing bullets on the back cover: "Female SF writers are a rarity; good ones even scarcer!" Sadly, Principles of Angels is so far from the company of the myriad novels which could be used to rebut this hopelessly bonkers bit of puff that I was left wondering if the sub-editor wasn't having a knowing giggle at Gollancz's expense.

Fenn's first novel is an entry in the sort of low-grade adventure story so doggedly ploughed by the likes of Neal Asher, the kind of story which sees a plucky but unsuspecting young protagonist thrown against his will into a mysterious milieu of actors, actions, and scenes which conspire to lead him along what the author hopes the reader will find a blood-pumping, thrill-seeking, questions-posing tale of derring-do, conspiracy, and romance. It is studiedly breathless. But the best action is always the most finely wrought, and the fundamental weakness of Principles of Angels is that it so strongly dictates its own plot to itself that its forcefulness is dissipated.

The novel is the story of Taro, a young male prostitute whose aunt and guardian is killed one night by one of her charge's clients. She had been an Angel, a state-sponsored assassin employed by the flying city of Khesh to enact its peculiar form of democracy. Driven by political killings, Khesh's government relies on the Angels and their mysterious manager, the Minister, to sort the wheat from the chaff, streamlining and improving governments by eliminating unpopular, corrupt, or incompetent incumbents. Topside, Khesh is a prosperous and cultured city, all music concerts and news media. In the venerable SF tradition, however, it has a "Downside," where the gangs and the drop-outs compete for scraps and develop their own parallel cultures. In short, Fenn wraps her single bright idea—democracy by assassination—in a comfortable blanket of SF cliches, from emerging sentiences to backward-looking societies.

Principles of Angels is a story built on these familiarly hokey old staples: the plot begins by a meeting of pure chance between Taro and the Minister (or so it seems—if Fenn meant to communicate the omniscience of the Minister, she instead makes it seem like he's just unusually fortunate); humanity has thrown off the yoke of a totalitarian alien race, though of course they haven't really disappeared; competing city states interfere with each others' politics, but do so in manners so unsubtle that one is left wondering whether they learned their diplomacy at playschool.

If Fenn were happy merely with recycling SF cliches, one might be able to call her novel homage or pastiche. But her writing itself is similarly laden with sentences we've all read before, often when they make no real sense. A punter with a crippled leg still manages to squeeze her thighs around Taro in ecstacy; the downsiders speak in a sort of nineteenth century cockney, lovingly and orthographically replicated each and every time one of them says a single irritatingly stilted word; every emotion, every reflection or uncertainty, is spelled out explicitly and baldly as soon as it occurs to a character, offering their development on a plate thoughtfully decked out with an ungarnished, overcooked meat and two veg.

Even these failings are not necessarily fatal. Fenn's story could still be gripping, if dully told. Clichés can be useful markers, and when used correctly they can convey a weight of information with economy and tact. If the story they are helping to tell is dynamic and compelling, they might make it less inventive but not necessarily any less gripping. What makes a story worth following, of course, is its richness, its sense of movement but also of depth. In terms of the novel, this level if not of believability then at least of credibility—of suspension of disbelief—is achieved, like the fluidity of its action, though careful preparation within the text. Principles of Angels, on the other hand, gives every impression of being made up as it goes along.

Of course, it was not—to Fenn's credit, she has at least attempted to make sense of her characters, their motivations, and the relationships they share. Each of them remains thin and essentially reactive, but none of them carry any extra fat or add unecessary ballast to the tale. (This may be part of the book's problem—there is no extraneous detail, nothing to encourage us to image the world beyond the story.) What she doesn't do is give her readers the tools to become a player in the story themselves. That is, every plot twist is unforeseen until it happens, explained in clumsy expositive dialogue which covers ever possible detail without leading us towards the next puzzle. In a book which revolves around its characters' secrets, this is a difficult to forgive: no one minds a mystery which plays fair, but one which doesn't becomes frustrating and ultimately unengaging.

The book's second principle player is Elarn Reen, a singer of ancient religious plainsong from a planet beyond Khesh City's system. She is ostensibly in town to play a few concerts, but in fact has her own agenda involving a search for a missing person. Who this missing person is remains a mystery for the book's first half, but Fenn at no point sees the virtue of a teasing clue—instead, she offers melodramatic foreboding. The central truth of Khesh City is revealed in the final 20 pages, in a speech by the Minister interspersed with stupid questions by our interlocutor Taro, which wraps up all the loose ends in a few paragraphs without ever once striking an earned note of resolution.

The idea of earning its sense of import is alien to Principles of Angels. Elarn at one point falls in love with a politician who has survived an assassination attempt, but their conversation reveals nothing emotive or tender. Instead, Fenn simply informs us that Elarn has realized she is in love. When Reen feels intense physical attraction, the beat of the prose does not quicken; when she feels safe it does not slow. The book's verbiage trundles on at a constant pace, regardless of who is speaking or moving, irrespective of what is happening or where. Characters use the same forms, the same sayings, even the same expletives—their diction is identical, their rhythms precise. It is as if Fenn believes that, by offering the worst on-paper accents this side of Thomas Hardy, she absolves herself of the need for any other linguistic invention. "Came to find ya earlier," one downsider tells Taro. "Ya weren't back. But yer 'ere now. C'mon." (p. 104) Barring the orthography, this direct, simple, almost fragmented style remains throughout. (At random, Fenn's own authorial voice: "Elarn ordered the com to play the sequence again. This time she watched the text. Statistics, names, lots of question marks." The style becomes deadening.)

In a sense, then, it is Fenn's stringent focus on her plot which renders her book so unengaging. The other flaws in her writing orbit this strangulating myopia, but it is her turgid insistence upon the events she has decided must happen which inevitably lead the reader not to care about them at all. True, she has failed to plan her world or story in those deeper ways which would render it fertile imaginative space, but it isn't possiible to say she doesn't have a handle on it. Rather, she maintains a grip so tight that it squeezes much of the vibrancy from even its most dramatic moments, robbing the book of any impact or force, in fact any visceral quality at all, which a lighter touch may have leant it. I am reminded of China Mievelle, who for all his missteps and acquired tastes could never be accused of not allowing his stories room to breath (indeed, sometimes they hyperventilate). Fenn, on the other hand, in everything from her choice of diction to her facility with pacing, never lets her story wiggle free from its leash. Like a dog chained too long to the spot, this renders the story listless and broken.

Late in the book, characters swap allegiance and then die with alarming rapidity, and yet every time the plot barrels on. The final pages allow no meaningful room for any assumption that the surviving characters feel much of anything concerning the events they have just been through, and major characters the reader may (against the odds) have grown to care for are given short elegiac shrift. The plot—that lifeless, unforgiving thing—has been crowned king, and it has no time or energy for pausing for reflection. One wonders what the point of such a monarch is, except to exercise its rule.

The book may be aiming for a moral to do with participatory democracy or not leaving the poorest that belong to one behind, but in truth it is hard to tell. What Principles of Angels is about is itself—its own characters, its own story, its own world. This is no bad thing when those elements are depicted with verve, depth and passion, but Fenn's first novel is let down by its carefulness, its at times over-basic structures and forms. It comes out stilted and fixed, every detail provided for the reader with an almost patronising precision, yet without any of the real stuff of fiction—the garnish, the filigree and, most importantly, that frisson that occurs when what we are told about the story's world, and what happens in it, are separated by a margin we fill in for ourselves. In a book with no space for anything but what it wants baldly to tell us, nothing has the room to grow.

Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.

Dan Hartland’s reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at
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