Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Glorious Angels - Justina Robson

Glorious Angels is one of the most original works I’ve read in the last twelve months. It’s unabashedly clever, uncompromising, and full of scintillating ideas. It does have some flaws, but the core of the text is an enticingly intelligent read.

The story is set in a world living in the shadow of its past. In the first few pages, the idea of a civilisation living in and around technology it neither understands nor really requires is presented, alongside a low level magic which is presented as both subtle and pervasive. The society shown seems almost to be in a gentle senescence, its dynamism sapped by a distant war which it appears, largely, not to need or understand.

This aging techno-magic society is carefully portrayed; the entire environment is crafted around the blend of technology and magic, and it seeps through the narrative, a subtle underlay to all the character interactions. And it’s entirely believable, and beautifully done. Over the top of this underlying structure is a society where the traditional gender role of power is held by women – and much like the world, this is never presented to the reader with a sledgehammer, but carefully drawn out from the way characters thing and interact with each other. It’s a very convincing portrayal of how a society in this state might work, and the character dynamics and situations it presents are fascinating.

The layer above both the society and the characters is the politics and the actions around them– the book begins with a melange of political plotting laced through the setting, though it certainly doesn’t stay there. That said, whilst there is a certain amount of action, murder and running about, especially in the latter part of the book, it’s not the focus; the majority of the plot comes out in dialogue, and in characters internal musings.

This does have a bit of an impact on the pacing of the text; it definitely starts with a bit of a slow burn, as the reader is brought up to speed with the world, with the characters, with their motivations and drivers – the pebbles before the avalanche. The pace definitely picks up around the halfway mark, though.

The only other issue is wrapped up in the characters and their roles; there are a few rather explicit love scenes near the start of the text; this isn’t really a problem (though it was a bit unexpected at the time), and fits the characters involved and their narratives – but be aware, if it’s something you’d be uncomfortable reading in rather excruciating detail! On balance, I think it adds to the text, but others may disagree.

Overall then, this is a that rarity, a novel of ideas, which demands a great deal from its audience, and refuses to talk down to them – but rewards close reading, rewards perseverance, and has a lot of really interesting things to say, presented inside a narrative that is both interesting and compelling to read. Well worth taking the time to read.

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