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Principles of Angels by Jaine Fenn
Review by Marcus Gipps
Gollancz Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575082922
Date: 19 June 2008 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

A Gollancz début notable not least in that newcomer Jaine Fenn joins only a handle of British female science fiction writers currently at work in the field. (A prize for anyone who can name five!).

Principles of Angels is reviewed this month by Marcus Gipps.

One of Gollancz's débuts for June, a science-fiction novel set in the confines of a well-defined city of pleasure and pain.

It's clear from about line one of the novel - "...an arm's length from death" -- that we're in gritty territory here, as we're introduced to Taro, a young man on the run. Fenn wants it to be obvious that the setting is not your clinched shiny SF fare, as we follow Taro through a maze of unpleasant surroundings and unpleasant people, trying to avoid being killed or forced into an alliance he doesn't want. There is an extent to which the gritty urban future has become a cliché in itself, but Fenn's is well thought through, and never really falls too far into familiarity.

It takes a while before we start to get glimmers of back story, and these aren't much cheerier than the environs -- Taro's protector has been murdered by a man he inadvertently led home following a violent bout of prostituted sex, and now he has to fend for himself in the complex and brutal social stratification of the Undertow. Before long he gets mixed up in the politics of the more-presentable Chesh City above him, running errands for the mysterious Minister and trying to find out who killed his aunt and why.

There's a second plot strand as well, and a second lead character, as far removed from Taro's prostitution and struggle to survive as possible -- a religious singer from another world, ostensibly on a tour to the city but with her own motives, and a secret goal. Unsurprisingly the two end up crossing paths, and after a while we end up in a slightly more straight-forward novel. The hints and allusions to the history that Fenn has created become full-on explanations, and we settle in to a race-against-time-to-save-the-City finale. It isn't bad, by any means, and the characters remain interesting, but it felt like the author was having more fun setting things up and introducing us to her world than she does brining about the climaxes to her plot. To be fair, that's a criticism that can only really be levelled at the last few chapters, as the route to understanding exactly what is going on is an enjoyably torturous one. There are a couple of twists saved for the endgame, and I never lost my interest, but still...

The politics and social mores of Chesh are well-defined and surprisingly interesting -- anything goes, to an extent, but the Angels of the title have their own role to play in the execution of the Minister. Overly powerful, individually characterised (the ones that we meet, anyway) and not-quite-human, they're a nice idea. We don't see an awful lot of them, to be honest, and the one we do spend much time with turns out not to be quite what she seems, but they're a good hook to hang the novel on. The lack of rules and morals allows Fenn to go to town on the gritty and violent bits of life, which she clearly relishes, and Chesh is well-defined, both above and below ground. The end of the novel suggests a sequel set elsewhere -- it will be interesting to see if Fenn can create another successful and believable (well, in SF terms...) setting.

Apart from the slight loss of focus in the denouement, I enjoyed this book, and don't have many criticisms. It doesn't assume that everything has to be explained in full detail, and is willing to trust the reader with a modicum of intelligence. The dialogue can get a touch clichéd at times, and there's an occasional tendency for Taro's Undertow 'accent' to drop a little heavily into something that looks like parody, but otherwise it holds together. Given that it's a first novel, that bodes rather well for the future.

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