Principles of Angels
by Jaine FennFloating high above the planet of Vellern and enclosed in a forceshield bubble, Khesh City is a vertiginous place. The lower half is a place of nets, vanes and precarious mazeways, where one wrong step can easily lead to a person falling to their death on the planet's surface below. It's a liberal place where nearly everything is allowed for those who can pay, and the state operates a democracy by assassination.
The Angels are the few who are allowed to carry out the state-sponsored killings that politicians vote for. Angels can fly, they wear stealth cloaks, and no-one dare question them. They're so high on the social scale they might as well be divine. So it's a shock to Taro when his aunt Malia, an Angel, is murdered. Taro lives in the Undertow and he's used to fending for himself, but his aunt's death leaves him homeless and without protection. He's eager to take revenge on her assassin. To survive he falls in with a gang of thugs and pimps. But the Minister, the leader of Khesh City, offers Taro the more exalted job of tracking down an Angel and finding out whether or not she has gone rogue.
Meanwhile a singer called Elarn Reen is visiting the city from a distant planet. She's straight-laced and gentle, so the noise and obscene colour of the floating city is a culture shock for her. When she meets Salik Vidoran, a disgraced politician, he seems to be able to offer her a sanctuary in a strange and unsafe place. But Elarn has more than singing on her agenda. Can she trust Vidoran, and what is the politician's interest in her anyway?
Khesh City is a vivid, brilliantly imagined place peopled with Angels, meatbabys, lags, downsiders, rollers and smoky coves. There's a rich, evocative language used by the characters, and more often than not their expressions reflect a life lived hanging precariously at a height. Not falling is all-important: dodgy thinking is "gappy", whilst good things are "bolted" and secure. Water is precious, and people have learned to live with varying gravity in a place that's so incomprehensible that parts of it border on magical.
Principles of Angels has great suspense and a palpable sense of danger as Taro and Elarn navigate the brutal and complex maze of Khesh politics and death-dealing Angels. There's a certain amount of wince-inducing violence thanks to sadistic foreigners and small-time thugs looking to claw their way to the top. The novel really hits its stride about half-way in though, when furious action mixes with an intriguing plot and the question of the difference between love and manipulative illusion. This multi-layered story explores themes of coercion and mind control against a backdrop of aliens, enigmatic technology and breathtaking high-up action. As they say in Khesh City, it's pure blade.
14th June 2011
Review © Ros Jackson