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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Dust, by Elisabeth Bear, Bantam Spectra, 2008, $6.99.

God's Demon, by Wayne Barlowe, Tor, 2007, $24.95.

Mister B. Gone, by Clive Barker, HarperCollins, 2007, $24.95.

I ADMIT, FOR reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, some interest in the Angelic and the Demonic in fiction. I didn't have a particularly religious upbringing (read: none—not the deliberate lack of one, just…none), but there's something about these mythic inventions that pulls and prods at the debris in my subconscious. This doesn't mean that I actually read books with Angels or Demons in the passionately enthusiastic way (bordering on addiction) that I've seen some people read Vampire fiction—but that tricky "get a potential reader to pick up the book" stage is bypassed; I will almost always pick up a book that has one of these two things somewhere on the cover or in the blurb.

Having done that, I read the blurb, and often instantly put the book back—but not always, as in the case of Elizabeth Bear's latest novel, Dust.

Bear's Angel, Perceval, is no mythic creature; she is also no fantasy creature. Her name is not an accident; she is a Knight, from Engine (more on names in a bit). From the outset, in the use of language and the descriptions of Perceval's wings—or lack thereof—it's clear that this is not a fantasy novel; that the fantastic elements are grounded, are reformed, in sf tropes. Bear's prose is the prose of a short story writer—a short story sf writer—it's lovely, tight, and dense; all details are offered on the fly, and in the context of viewpoint.

There are three viewpoints in the book, but two carry most of the narrative weight: Perceval's and Rien's. Rien is a servant in the House of Rule; she is a Mean, and the members of the family of Rule are Exalts. Means are, more or less, human; Exalts are other—immortals who decide the fate of Means, when they condescend to notice them at all. Perceval, winged, is also an Exalt, and it is Perceval's capture and mutilation (off-screen) at the hands of Ariane of the House of Rule that start this novel.

Rien is the servant whose task it is to tend to Perceval in her captivity, while the Angel awaits death and absorption. These aren't Rien's normal duties; she doesn't work as a guard or a jailor, but instead cleans, as a menial, the great rooms and corridors of the House itself.

But she is drawn to Perceval, and when Perceval recognizes her, when she calls her by name, Rien begins her own transformation.

This story really has very little to do with Angels, per se. Perceval, an Exalt, has lost her wings permanently; while Exalts can survive any physical damage, they rely on their colonies of nanites to repair the damage done to their bodies. But certain weapons can disrupt the programming, destroying the function of these nanites—and Perceval's wings, riven from her by an unblade, are casualties of such a weapon.

Fleeing her prison in the House of Rule with the aid of Rien, Perceval sets out to prevent the war that it seems clear Ariane is planning between Rule and Engine—two large communities that exist in this world called Jacob's Ladder.

The third viewpoint, then, is the viewpoint of one Jacob Dust. Jacob Dust is not a biological creature: he is one fragment of Israfel, the guiding AI of Jacob's Ladder, which was forced to split itself into component pieces so that it might survive. Survival was imperative, and each of these fragments is driven by the need to survive. Dust is the fragment of the consciousness of Israfel that keeps memory. He is opposed by Samael, who is the Angel of Death—or, in less mythic terms, Life support; and Asrafil, the ship's weapons. They all understand that to survive, Jacob's Ladder must, after centuries in orbit, begin to move again—and to move, there must be one cohesive entity into which all subsidiary functions are subsumed. Each merely wants to be the dominant personality in that reabsorption. So they are working toward the same goals, but in entirely different ways.

And what they need—what each of them needs—is an heir apparent to the title of Captain. They have chosen their heirs, but the heir is decided by primogeniture, which severely limits their choices: Dust, should he be able to coerce Perceval into serving him, has the best claimant, because by birth, the title is hers.

If she survives.

Bear's language, pacing, and the gradual unfolding of the mysteries of the world of Jacob's Ladder are pitch-perfect here. Her choice of character names, rather than being a gloss, resonate with the story she's chosen to tell, evoking the echoes of myth while creating entirely new ones; she's playing with tropes, and the synergy of that play is this book—but she makes it work. She makes her Perceval real, her Rien substantive, and their quest to save the world they know meaningful.

When I hit the end of the book, there was a one-page announcement of an upcoming sequel—but had there been no sequel I would have been completely satisfied by the book as it stands. That said, I'm happily looking forward to next year's Chill.

*     *     *

Barlowe's Angels are fallen Angels—or, as they're more often called, demons, and his architecture is not the gritty and run-down orbital derelict of Bear's devising. Instead, he's turned his gaze upon Hell itself: the Hell that resulted from Lucifer's fall.

In this regard, God's Demon takes a much more traditional approach to the demonic or the angelic than Bear's novel does, and as such, its canvas is epic and much less recognizably human than the evolved world of Jacob's Ladder.

Where Bear has self-contained habitats in various states of repair, Barlowe has the vast panorama of the damned and their keepers: the lost souls, and the demons who chose to follow Lucifer.

Sargatanas is one such demon, the ruler of the city of Adamantinarx. Adamantinarx is called "the City that Fell from Heaven" by those who do not live within its boundaries, and in the context of Hell and the Fallen, it is a city that strives for dignity, where there is so little.

Barlowe's Hell is an interesting place. There are creatures who existed in Hell before the fall, and the fall itself seems to have preserved the ranks of the Seraphim, converting those who lead into those who rule. The creatures that existed before have been tamed or subjugated (although tribes of creatures still roam the wastelands that exist in the spaces around the cities that rose in the wake of the Fallen). The souls, tempted and trapped, have become the essential building blocks of those cities—literally, rather than figuratively—and for the most part, like the Fallen, they remember little of the life they lived before they ended up in Hell.

In a chance encounter with a soul, during the construction of one of the many buildings in the vast city of Adamantinarx, Lord Sargatanas is reminded, forcefully, of all that he was before the fall; he is reminded of what he has lost. The soul doesn't want to be turned into a brick (the concept works better on Barlowe's page than on this one), and is strong enough, defiant enough, to do more than wail or beg. Sargatanas nonetheless turns the woman into a brick, but in so doing, is ultimately reminded of the pointlessness of his existence. Heaven, lost in the fall, has never been remembered so clearly by Sargatanas as it is after this encounter.

He becomes determined to regain it somehow.

But to regain it, he must be worthy of Heaven, and in Hell that is impossible.

There are those among the Fallen who choose to remember, however painful memory is; there are those who choose to forget, and those who choose to deny all previous existence. The ruler of Hell, Beelzebub, is one of the latter, and it is against Beelzebub that Sargatanas must prevail to win what he seeks.

This book is a lot like what you would get if you mixed the spectacle and scope of a DeMille movie (in all its essential conservatism) with Clive Barker. Barlowe's vision of the look and feel of Hell is the vision of a visual artist: it's clearly real to him and he seems to describe, in large part, what he has forced himself to see. In that sense, the book succeeds; Barlowe's vision of Hell feels stylistic and oddly medieval.

The quest Sargatanas undertakes—a rebellion against Hell in order to regain the gates of Heaven—is also intriguing, because of course, Hell is about the lack of redemption, and seeking redemption itself is a task worthy of an Angel.

But redemption always seems—to me—to be a more personal affair, and while Barlowe's work captures scale and scope, in the end, his Hell and his demons could easily fit onto the grimmer canvases captured by fantasy writers whose demons—or angels—are not so emeshed in existing mythology. His demons, outwardly visually different, fit into a hierarchical static system, and it flattens them; if Hell is vast, there are, ultimately, variations on a theme, but no large differences, none of the essentially individual elements, that would make hell and damnation personal or unique.

The outcome is not suprising, with one exception: the character of a slave (a soul) and the way he hovers on the edge of the same redemption Sargatanas is seeking. His choice illuminates Barlowe's Heaven and Hell.

There was enough in the book to keep me interested in the Hell of Barlowe's devising, and I finished it, but I'm not sure it will work for people who don't already have some of the same interests that I do.

*     *     *

And the last of the three books in this month's theme is the newest novel by Clive Barker. I'm not generally much of a horror reader—I know I said this last column as well—but Barker's work is compelling to me, and this was true even of the Books of Blood, which were almost definitive horror when they were published.

Mister B Gone takes, as a central conceit, a demon, one somewhat aptly named Jakobok Botch, who speaks to the reader from the printed page—literally. He wants you to burn the book in your hands, and alternates between pleas, threats, and cajoling.

To tempt the reader, Jakobok parcels out bits and pieces of his life story, interrupting his exhortations to destroy the book with glimpses of his life: his early life in Hell with an abusive father, his later life when, fished out of Hell, he makes his escape from his captors (who, after all, consider him of negligible value, but are willing to boil and skin him anyway). He occasionally, like the most focused of men, gets sidetracked by the details of his own life, and the fascination of his own compulsions, but always returns to his demand that the book in hand be burned.

The most interesting of these scenarios is Quintoon, another demon-living-in-the-human world, who takes Jakobok under his figurative wing and teaches him how to live among humans, alternately preying on them and enjoying the things they produce as the two travel through the time and space of Europe. There is a very unsubtle class distinction between Quintoon and Jakobok—Jakobok being the equivalent of trailer trash, and Quintoon being the more urbane, educated equivalent of a landed noble. It exists in their understanding, their language, their ability to manipulate words.

…which is interesting, because Jakobok's life eventually leads him to Gutenberg, and thus to the printing press, and on to a variant of eternal damnation (which, one supposes, is the lot of demons anyway. But I digress).

The problem with this book is that the metaphor, the power of words, works—it's the type of metaphor that you appreciate more as you break the book down into the component parts that uphold and underscore it; it's the story itself, containing all these disparate elements, that fails to gel.

Well, there's also the fact that it's not really horrifying or horrific (I have got to stop reading cover blurbs). What works in this book: the tangled relationship, the unequal relationship, of Quintoon and Jakobok, and the oddly beautiful and savage glimpses of the war between angels and demons in the streets of Gutenberg's Europe. Barker captures the tangled obsession, the compulsion and the lack of sense or sensibility, of one type of love, better than most writers, with far fewer words, and I think it's safe to say that in his glimpse of the battleground through which most of us walk unaware, there's a sense of otherness, a sense of the alien, that lifts the conflict itself outside of our reach—but lets it hover, and therefore tantalize because there's a chance if we look at it in just the right way, we might for an eye-blink, understand the mysteries.

What works less well: the story, which has a curiously truncated feel; it's as if the book is either too long or too short; too much left out, or too much included. I personally didn't mind Jakobok's constant whining, pleading, or threats, but can see how these might wear on the nerves.

I still think it's worth reading, but adjust expectations accordingly, and read for the things Barker does well.

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