16 January 2012

The Angel Hunter

A friend of mine, L.B.D., is doing some PR for a fantasy novel, set partially at my alma mater, and asked if I would like to review it. This isn't something I've ever done before, but I feel like a real professional, getting a free promo copy and everything. Since writing a proper book review isn't something I've ever tried before, I'm going to go about this the best way I know how, which you might see as off-the-cuff rambling, but I prefer to think of as a non-linear collection of thoughts. Here goes nothing.

• The book is J.A. Leary's The Angel Hunter. The main character is a young, windowed business executive whose infant twins are kidnapped under mysterious circumstances. It becomes clear that she, and her offspring, have a particular destiny. She struggles to recover her children, with the help of a modern day alchemist/archeologist/mad scientist, while trying to outwit two different secret organizations and a skeptical policy force.

There is also some corporate espionage, organized crime, a secret cabal of clergy, intelligence organizations, nazis, shadow governments, zombie hitler (well, sort of), the ark of the covenant and other relics, the antichrist, fallen angels, occult wisdom, and what I can only describe as computational astrology. Oh, and a landmark on the Notre Dame campus is actually a cosmic gateway.

• If this seems like a lot, it is. The Angel Hunter has lots and lots of ideas. Which is great!

But I can't help but think this book would have benefited a lot from paring these different subplots down. Indiana Jones tracked down the Ark of the Covenant and fought off Nazis. He wasn't also trying to find the Image of Edessa, the Crown of Prester John, and Pope Joan's pontifical knickers all the while keeping the Masons from finding the Philosopher's Stone with the help of the Theban Legion and also escaping from the US Marshals, who are trying to arrest him and the Wandering Jew for insurance fraud.  That would be a little too much.

• The stage has been set for sequels featuring the same main character, so perhaps some of the elements in this book could have been saved for later books. On the other hand, if Leary has used up a dozen or so conspiracies and mysteries and devices already in the first volume, he must have a lot more in the tank for the next volume.

• Advice for all authors of the "everything you know is wrong!" genre of conspiracy/fantasy books: nail the small stuff. I'm not going to believe that the structure of the universe is fundamentally different than I have always been told, or that there is a millennia-old conspiracy revolving around esoteric ancient wisdom, or that secret societies control the world, or that everything the Church has taught us is a lie if the mundane details are off. Incorrect trivialities may be trivial, but they makes it much harder to suspend disbelief.

For example, the main church on Notre Dame's campus is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It is, as the name suggests, a basilica, not a cathedral, as Leary calls it several times. A cathedral is not just a big, important church. It is the seat (literally and figuratively) of a Bishop. Calling Sacred Heart a cathedral hurts your credibility as a story teller and takes me out of the narrative.

I put down Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol over a matter like this. This isn't a surprise; he's notorious for being careless with details.* I could deal with secret chambers under the Capitol, and lost Masonic secrets, and even mental energy affecting the material world. Using "convergence" when he clearly means "emergence" in the middle of a monolog about the properties of emergent systems made me realize there are a ton of better books to be reading right now. You've got to nail the details if I'm going to believe the big lie.

(* Changing details in the service of a story is one thing, but getting things wrong which are irrelevant is just sloppy. See Megan McArdle's similar complaint about the treatment of Washing, DC geography in Homeland.)

• Speaking of small matters, there were a lot of problems with the typography in my copy.

Some caveats: (1) I care way more about typography than most. I keep a spreadsheet of books I've read, and one of the few columns is "type face." (2) IIRC, this was self-published, or at least somewhat so, and that's hard. I get it. I wrote up several hundred pages last quarter, with figures, equations, TOCs, lists of figures, tables, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, and so on. Typesetting is hard, and requires a lot of work, so errors are bound to creep in. (3) This was a review copy, so perhaps it had not gotten the final proofing yet.

I understand this is hard, and most people don't care as much as I do, but damn it, I do care. Angel Hunter is, primarily, a pulp adventure. (I don't mean that to be dismissive; I love and need some pulp in my diet.) This is the kind of story that asks you to sit back and enjoy, and don't think too hard about how it all works. But that process is thrown out of whack when there are inexplicable line breaks in the middle of paragraphs, or when sections oddly switch from being fully justified to ragged right.

I've looked around, and the process of getting your text ready to print physically is not easy, apparently. I'm judging mostly by the numbers of online tutorials (eg); everything I've written and had printed has gone through an editor. Besides having editorial support, I've also created everything I've written in LaTex, which nicely removes all of the problems I noticed in Angel Hunter. To be sure, it introduces complications of it's own, but you don't have to worry about the leading changing from paragraph to paragraph without you knowing it. It blows my mind that anyone could typeset a book-length text using Word or other WYSWIG editors. Why would people subject themselves to that?

• Maybe I only feel this way because I'm an ND alumnus, but I think the idea of using Notre Dame's campus as a setting is a pretty good one.  I would have liked to see even more of that used.  Most of the stories in this subgenre are very Old World-focused.  It's always Rome and Paris and maybe London or Prague, and maybe somewhere in the Near East like Alexandria, Istanbul or Jerusalem.  And there are very good reasons for that.  Phoenix, Arizona just doesn't seem like the kind of place where occult mysteries are hidden.

But college campuses, especially older (or older-styled) campuses like ND and Princeton and Yale, where practically every building has some story behind it, do seem like the types of places that house mysterious secrets.  And I think Notre Dame is an especially good choice for this because it does have that link, through the Church, back to the Old World.

I could see a fun occult adventure comic being set at ND, with a BPRD-like organization with a secret headquarters in the subbasement of the library.  Somebody get on that.

Foucault's Pendulum, I believe, pointed out that a lot of conspiracy fantasies revolve around the this could be true therefore this is true gambit. ("It's theoretically possible that the Egyptians sailed to Mexico and taught the proto-Mayans how to build pyramids; you can't prove they didn't to my satisfaction; therefore the Egyptians did sail to Mexico, etc.") This is another thing Dan Brown loves to do.

Thankfully, Leary engages in little of this. There was one point however, and I've lost the page number, sadly, where Victoria's mother literally says this. (She can't know that psychological damage definitively didn't cause physical wounds, therefore she concludes that these physical wounds are the result of psychological damage.) It was annoying that Leary would stoop to the can't-prove-it's-false-therefore-it's-true move, but also very amusing that he would do so so explicitly, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was doing it on purpose with a wink and a nudge.

• As I said, there is a lot going on in this book. The theme I found most interesting, however, was the link between divinity and technology. We've all heard Clark's Third Law, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Lev Grossman's The Magician King extends that with the premise that any sufficiency advanced magic is indistinguishable from divinity. I think that continuum from technology to magic to godhood is a very fertile one for authors to explore, and I'm glad to see Leary doing so.

(See also Braak's corollary: "any technology that is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.")

This was handled a little roughly in Angel Hunter, however. There was a scene in the first act or so which portrays an argument between two archangels. It's a little unclear whether they are traditional angels, that is, divine beings in a heavenly realm, or just beings in another dimension of the physical universe, or beings with extremely high technical mastery, or what. My confusion lasted throughout the book. I wasn't sure what frame I was supposed to be coming at this from. Things clear up somewhat in the climax, during the the descriptions of Purgatory and Hell, but I'm still unclear what Leary's point of view is on this.

Hell, Satan, etc. were described with terms about different energy levels and vibrations and such, apparently wanting me to think of them as physical things, in our universe, describable with the right set of physical laws and constants, just like the world we know. If that's the situation (in the story world, of course) then that materialism demotes God a bit. He might still be the most powerful guy on the playing field, but now we're all on the same, physical, field. If divinity is a matter of mastering the appropriate wave mechanics and harmonics and so forth, the God isn't some sui generis thing, he's just a very good engineer.

But at the same time, Leary's book is quite pro-religious and pro-faith. Victoria's triumph revolves around God as a divine being whose love sustains life itself. So which is it? I think either point of view has the potential to tell a good story, but I'm not sure which one Leary was working from. Is God an ineffable, immaterial being who saves and redeems us, or is he a material thing, open to scientific understanding?

• Does being a super engineer/wizard make you Jehovah, whose loves sustains life, etc.? No, but it might make you pretty close to Mars or Hephaestus or Athena.

• Speaking of divinity and technology being two sides of the same coin, Kenneth Branagh's Thor movie from last year used this device. I thought that was a good way of fitting what are essentially gods into the same world as people like Iron Man. (This is a problem that comic books writers have struggled with, to various degrees and in various dimensions, for a long time.)

For instance, look at the way the art department depicted "The Destroyer." How Hephaestus-ian is this thing? He's straight from the bowels of Mount Etna.

Is he some kind of iron-and-fire demon? Some sort of golem created by a wizard? A nanotech artifact? Who knows?

In Thor's case it doesn't matter. Thor comes right out and says "science and magic are the same thing." That's fine, because no one still worships Thor or Odin, so no one is going to have to reconcile any dissonance if you claim their gods are really aliens with advanced engineering skills. I don't think you can be that coy when you're dealing with a judeo-christian mythology like Angel Hunter does. Especially not when that theology plays a major thematic roll in your story.

• For more on the divinity/technology confluence see Iain M Banks' "Sublimed" and Vernor Vinge's "Transcendent" civilizations in their Culture and Zones of Thought novels, respectively. Note that even the names given to these societies use words usually associated with religion or mysticism. This theme isn't that deeply explored by either writer, but it's definitely there.

• This is only tangentially related, but this recent piece in the International Herald Tribune touches on the overlap between religion and science outside of fictional narratives, specifically whether CERN and General Relativity "prove" the Quran is right.  It all sounds like those "proofs" that people like Athanasius Kircher cooked up during the Counter Reformation.

• I think we can evaluate Art on two different dimensions. One is more academic, and perhaps more objective. Did this film make good use of editing? Is this photograph under- or over-exposed? Is this character a fully-fleshed-out person? Are the stakes appropriate and properly motivated?

The other dimension is more personal, and consists of only one question: Do I want more of this?

(Don't take this too literally. I wish there were more Casablanca, because I believe it is a perfect movie. But I do not actually want their to be more scenes in it, or for it to have a sequel. Intellectually, I do not want there to be more of it. But some sub-rational part of me wants to continue experiencing it over and over and over again, and so the answer to "do I want more of this?" is entirely affirmative.)

Typically my answer to this question is pretty open-and-shut: I'm either interested in more, or I'm not. With Angel Hunter I'm sort of in-between. While I physically had the book in my hand, I wanted to keep reading, check out one more chapter, and stay up a little later to keep going. But when I put the book down I didn't have a ton of desire to pick it back up.

The only other thing I can think of having the same experience with is the third and fourth seasons of Sons of Anarchy. When I'm watching a particular episode, I really want to keep watching until it's over. But somehow between episodes I'm not compelled to start up the next one.

I think with both Angel Hunter and SoA the problem is too many plot threads. If Leary had half as many mysteries to unravel I probably would have been more interested in getting back to the book to find out what the deal was. If the Sons had only two or three enemies to fight or internal disputes to resolve each one would be seem more important.  As is almost every character has their own little drama, and I'm not that interested in any of them.

Part of the problem might be that the profusion of mysteries, combined with the small errors mentioned above, made it hard for me to believe that returning to the book would get me any answers.

• Another possibility is that individual scenes seem well written, even if the structure of the book as a whole doesn't hang together as well. I'll refer you to the memo David Mamet sent to his writing staff on The Unit:
But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn't, I wouldn't. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question: what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

We, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.
1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if [she doesn't] get it?
3) Why now?

[...] Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene. This need is why they came. It is that the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure -- this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene. All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.
Some of the more fantastic elements of Angel Hunter do get a little informational, for instance when the Mad Scientist is explaining his discoveries. But on the whole the scenes do tend to make it very clear who wants what and why, they get foiled, and then they move on to the next attempt.

• When LBD approached me about reviewing this, she said she knows I like to read fantasy. My first reaction was "no, I don't."

But then I realized, wait, yes I do. I've just never thought of myself as a fantasy reader.

I read a lot of Sci-Fi, always have. I think I never thought of myself as a fantasy reader because I never got into any of the big, "High Fantasy," Tolkienesque swords-and-wizards-and-dragons-and-dwarves epics. (Well, besides, Lord of the Rings itself, which I've read several times and will always hold a special place in my heart as the first "adult" book I remember reading back in elementary school.)

But I've realized that, besides Lord of the Rings, I loved Narnia as a kid, the Earthsea books are the stories I would most like to see turned into a good movie, The Magicians was the best novel I read this year, Discworld is great, and many of the comics I love, like Fables and Hellboy, are unquestionably fantasy. So yes, I guess I like to read fantasy. Thank you to LBD for helping me to realize that.

• Conclusion: if you're in to this genre of books, Angel Hunter will make a decent beach read sort of book.  It's something you should be able to sit down, switch off, and enjoy, with a fast pace and lots of different elements to keep you on your toes.  There are plenty of interesting ideas at play, though the execution is unpolished.  I'm interested to see if future volumes smooth out some of that rookie roughness, and if there will be the same wild profusion of ideas shown here.

My biggest complaint is that there are too many elements, in fact.  Fewer subplots and devices, each given a little more attention, would make for a stronger story.  Personally, I would have liked a clearer view on the metaphysics of the world to help me get situated as well.


  1. On the junction between science and divinity, the classic (and highly recommended) SF book is "Lord of Light".

    As for fantasy which isn't High Fantasy, can I recommend "The Lies of Locke Lamora" (two con men in a Godfather-like pure fantasy setting), "Ink and Steel" / "Hell and Earth" (Shakespeare and Marlowe, spies and conspiracies, and faerie), or "Last Call" (the Fisher King in Las Vegas) ?

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I've been meaning to get to Locke Lamora for a while, so I think I'll bump that up to the top of the queue.