Angel Seeker by Sharon Shinn
Ace / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN 0441011349 PubDate: 02/24/04
Review by Samuel Lubell
480 pgs. List price $ 23.95
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One of the debates constantly held on Usenet and at SF cons is how vital must the SF/fantasy elements be to a novel for it to be SF/fantasy? If the book has western hero Bat Batston using a ray gun instead of a six shooter or if Romeo and Juliet occasionally look up and comment about the two moons in their planet’s sky, is it SF?
I found myself pondering that question as I read Sharon Shinn’s Angel-Seeker . This is the fifth book in the Samaria series about a colony planet that’s forgotten its origins, the spaceship with an AI computer that everyone now thinks is a god, and the winged angels who songs can cause the computer to rain medicine or send down a thunderbolt. But in Angel-Seeker this backstory from previous books is not explained or summarized, and is barely relevant. For this is a Romance that just happens to take place on an alien planet and would require little more than “search and replace” on some names to be set in the present day.
Actually, it is two romances, that barely intersect plotwise but complement each other thematically. One story is that of Elizabeth who, tired of her life as little more than a servant in her cousin’s household, goes to the city where the angels live, and become an Angel-seeker. Angels have difficulty conceiving children and need to mate with humans in order to do so. And a woman who conceives an Angel-child is highly regarded by society despite her usually pathetic past as an angel-seeker who tries to manipulate angels into falling in love with her.
The second story is that of the angel Obadiah, who is assigned a mission to visit the Jansai (trader/nomads) who had sided with the previous archangel and became furious when the new archangel freed their Edori slaves. On his way back from his first meeting, he is shot down in the desert and only survives because a Jansai girl, breaking all customs of her people, provided him with food and shelter while he heals. The two fall in love but Rebekah does not want to leave her family, even though they are making an arranged marriage for her and like all Jansai females, she is kept locked away from the male world. But with the help of her cousin she is able to sneak away for brief romantic visits with her angel, until she is horrified to discover herself pregnant before marriage and therefore subject to the penalty of being sent to the desert to die should her condition be discovered.
This is where the two stories skillfully play off each other thematically. Elizabeth wants an angel baby but falls in love with an Edori worker. Rebekah is not looking for an angel, let alone a baby, but has one fall for her (literally) anyway. Each gets the other’s dream yet ultimately each one ends up happy.
What makes this work are the strong characterizations. Elizabeth starts out somewhat bitter because of her life and has to learn how to experience joy. Rebekah still a girl who sees her own rebelliousness as fun, must grow and mature to be a full partner to her Angel. And Obadiah has his own personality quirks and mission. Only Rufus, the Edori, remains less than fully developed although his quest to go to his people’s gathering and connect with the other tribes does help fill him out somewhat.
But is it science fiction? Change Obadiah the angel to Obadiah the American helicopter pilot in Iraq, and exchange the fictional Jansai for Arabs (right down to their custom of keeping the women veiled and hidden from men) and the book becomes a modern day Romance just as easily. (The practice of seeking to have Angel babies could be replaced by the desire to marry the angels/Americans and get a green card.) The science fictional elements in the book are minimal, mostly remnants from the previous volumes that are never explained here. Essentially, save for the desire to make this book fit into the series, there is no need for this plot and for these characters to be a science fiction book at all.
If you are looking for a Romance with a few traces of science fiction, this would be the perfect book and you do not to have to have read the others to understand this one (although there are occasional references to events in Archangel). If you’ve read the others in the series (which are more science fictional than this) and liked them, than you’ll like this one despite the lack of Science Fiction elements (I know I did.) And it would be a great way to introduce a Romance/Mainstream reader to science fiction. But if you are looking for Science Fictional “sense of wonder” or exciting action, look elsewhere, this is not the book for you.