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An Occupation Of Angels
Pendragon paperback £4.99
review by Patrick Hudson
The striking cover of An Occupation Of Angels wouldn't look out of place on a Vertigo graphic novel or a CD cover for an alternative rock band. The story inside is also reminiscent of the edgier material in Hellblazer or Sandman, and the hectic pace clearly demands a driving rock soundtrack. This combination of spy thriller action and hard-edged modern fantasy delivers a taut tale of suspense and violence.
The Cold War tensions of east and west echo the thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s but this world is dominated by a host of angels that descended from the heavens in 1945. Archangels have taken up residence in various national monuments across the world - Michael in the Kremlin, Behemoth in St Paul's, Metatron in Notre Dame, Azrael in Lubyanka - and play some ineffable role in the progress of the east-west conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the world's intelligence services take a great deal of interest in their machinations. Killarney, a super-secret British intelligence assassin, is set on the trail of Eldershott, a Bureau cryptographer who has gone AWOL in East Berlin and, of course, there is more this case than a simple defection.
Tidhar wastes no time getting to the meat of the action, and hits the ground running. His long sentences punctuated by commas; sometimes whole paragraphs, invest the story with a desperate urgency which pushes the action forward. The fast moving style and short-form (80-ish pages) don't leave much room for exposition, and so there are a lot of questions left unanswered and implications left unexplored - it must be hell to be an atheist in this world.
Far from being underdeveloped, it feels as though these layers of exposition have been deliberately peeled away, providing just enough background to frame the action without impeding the hectic pace. Tidhar has an excellent sense of place. He is able to evoke Killarney's travels in Berlin, London, Paris, and across Russia by train with a few well-chosen details and a clever use of location in his action set pieces, and paints his scenes by making use of the scenery rather than wasting time describing it.
Here and there I noticed a few slips that suggest an earlier draft in the present tense, and a few typos (particularly in the second half) made me wonder if it might have benefited from one more pass before disinterested eyes. However, the arresting cover image by Ben Baldwin and the unfussy layout give the whole thing a very professional polish.
Since the decline in the small-press fiction magazines, this would appear to be the way ahead for small press fiction publishers. As the earlier boom was based on new desktop publishing technologies, the arrival of print on demand and digital production gives these volumes real shelf-appeal, which will (hopefully) lead to a meaningful bookshop presence that the magazines could never manage.
Tidhar is a rising star in the British fantasy and SF scene and this dark thriller gives ample demonstration of why. Its brevity and punchy style make it perfect fit for a long train journey or an afternoon off, and the tale of otherworldly intrigue will stick with you long after you've finished it.
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