Review: Archangel by Sharon Shinn (Samaria series #1)

Archangel by Sharon Shinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the first of a series of books set in the same world. Each one has a standalone romance, yet the larger arc, spanning the series, is more of a quest that takes centuries and many heroes to complete. The setting is intriguing, and I’m already hooked.

A distant planet that had been colonised five hundred years ago by a group of men and women, who claim that their God, Jovah, saved them from their own violent world and brought them to Samaria to start anew. Centuries later, Jovah still keeps careful account of how they live their lives, and guids and punishes them to keep the harmonic balance of their world intact. And it’s this close, divine supervision that keeps the many tribes, classes, and races populating Samaria from plunging into war and violence as their ancestors in a far away planet had.

So, these ‘saved’ people had been given the ‘Libereria’ and certain rules to live by. Break these rules, and the world will end. Jovah’s representatives are the Angels who rule Samaria in His name, and control the weather by their prayers. They fly high into the heavens and sing to Jovah asking for specific amounts of moisture and frequency, and He always answers these prayers. The humans can’t directly communicate with their God but there are Oracles in their world who can ask questions of Jovah and receive answers through a mystical screen like device. Of course, there is also a people called the Edori, a nomadic group who wander in small clans and believe that Jovah listens to every individual and doesn’t need Angels to play the middleman.

Every child is ‘dedicated’ to Jovah soon after birth by having a certain gem grafted into the bone of their right arm by a priest. It is through this stone that Jovah knows you were born and keeps track of you through your life and accepts you at the gate of death. This stone also flickers were you feel a great deal of affection for someone, especially when you meet the one you were truly meant to be with. It’s called a ‘Kiss’ (true loves?). Edori are the only one who don’t believe in it and refuse to dedicate their children.

Now, every Archangel rules for twenty years. Raphael is on the throne but our hero, Gabriel takes over in six months. The law is that in the next annual Gloria (where representatives of all clans and tribes must gather on a certain spot with the angels and sing their devotion to Jovah once a year), Gabriel must sing with his Angelica (always a human) at his side. Only she can start a Gloria. And only then can Gabriel become the next Archangel.

An Archangel’s Angelica is always predetermined by Jovah, so, chaffing at the injustice of giving up his right to choose, Gabriel had put off looking for her for years. Now, with six months to go he goes to the Oracle to learn her name. And then he can’t find her. And when he finally does, she isn’t the least bit interested in taking up the exalted office of the Angelica.

Rachel was born a hill farmer’s daughter, but when her village was destroyed she was adopted by a wandering Edori clan. Years later, her clan was attacked, and she was sold as a slave to a lord in the merchant city of Semorrah, where she spent the next five years as a slave in chains. When she met Gabriel and the ‘Kiss’ lit up in her own arm, it was the day before someone had promised to free her from enslavement. To Rachel, the angel’s demand that she come and take her position beside him as his wife and Angelica was the same as being enslaved all over again with no freedom of choice in sight.

Now, it had never occurred to Gabriel that his Angelica may not want to be his bride. So, faced with a woman who prized her freedom above all, Gabriel becomes obstinate. In his mind, his plight is quite serious — without the Angelica, there would be no Gloria, and according to the Libereria, this would anger Jovah enough for him to send thunder bolts from the sky and begin the apocalypse. To his mind, Rachel’s struggle for personal freedom is selfish, since he was making a sacrifice for the world too. Keep in mind that Rachel has been brought up by the Edori who don’t believe in the need for an Archangel overlord. So, from Rachel’s perspective, she’s not risking the end of humanity, but only standing up for herself to a privileged man who doesn’t seem to respect her right to choose. Ultimately, the struggle between them is of two individuals trying to understand the perspective of the other.

‘Archangel’ stresses the importance of personal liberty, even at the face of mortal peril. Just the existence of a choice — even if you don’t exercise it — hands you back your freedom and keeps your sense of self intact. I loved it. A romance built on differing ideologies and a race to save the world is totally my catnip.

Buy Archangel: Amazon US|UK|CA or Amazon IN

Samaria — A series overview:

I like the use of religion as a base to the belief system in this series. In the absence of any other explanation, the people here have firmly held on to their holy book and stuck to the rules that kept them alive for this long. To question those rules is to bring about the end of the world. But what’s interesting about this series is that people do question the beliefs, the rituals that seem to have apocalyptic consequences if they ever fail to perform them. The setting is gripping in its subversive suggestions. It’s no easy thing to have your god breathing down your neck every moment of your life, yet its human nature to wonder how it all began. And, as the series progresses and the world develops naturally through industrialization and beyond, more and more characters become aware of the chinks in the logic of Jovah’s godliness. The overarching quest for the heroes of the series is to find more answers, until they realise how their world was truly made and what power runs it. I enjoyed the answers at the end of the centuries long quest, just as much as I delighted in each story that took us a step closer to it.

I started this series thinking that it was an epic fantasy novel. It does have some of the major elements of the genre — the kingdom ruled by powerful beings; the (accepted) presence of magic or the supernatural; the culture, commerce, and social structure of early medieval period; heroes who must overcome personal and political odds to save the world.

I am a genre reader, so I am one of the people publishers think of when they obsess about fitting their new releases to the right niche or market, so that readers like me can find their books more easily. But sometimes a series transcends a single category and or refuses to be categorized at all. This book was published in 1996, when the boundaries of genres hadn’t been as rigid. They would have called it ‘speculative fiction’ or maybe even just ‘romance’.

My point is that Archangel is a book that a lot of science fiction readers today would never pick up and a lot of traditional fantasy readers would hesitate to. Yet this series is a surprisingly fun blend of traditional fantasy romance and science fiction. It’s a classic case of getting too bound up in your genre preferences and missing out on something good. I hope I stumble upon more of these hard-to-classify gems in the future.

Buy Archangel: Amazon US|UK|CA or Amazon IN

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