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Principles Of Angels
Jaine Fenn
Gollancz paperback £12.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Khesh City is enclosed in a dome and balanced on a stalk far above the rocky surface of an empty planet. The City, as it is usually referred to, is a well-regulated place, neatly divided into quarters by long avenues and governed by a Concord, which has the ultimate sanction of killing politicians. Angels carry out these public killings, endorsed by voters. Feared and honoured, the Angels live in the Undertow, a parasite society that has built itself a place on the underside of the city platform. Principles Of Angels spends much of its time in the Undertow, which has been built from the detritus of the City, roped together and netted to stop deadly falls. Its gritty society could be dismissed as SF cockney but their slang fits with and explains their environment. It has a greater sense of place than the main city that, despite being described as a brutal and dangerous place, feels bloodless. The universe beyond the City is thinly sketched, with interplanetary tourism, alien species and the centuries past Sidhe Protectorate. The naming of the Sidhe is surely intended to evoke Gaelic myths and archetypes, but the book imports them whole rather than creating a distinctive alien. The result is an assumption of faery magics, which allow the Sidhe incredible powers that the narrative doesn't earn.

The characters are more convincing. The conflicted Elarn Reen, a registered agnostic from a planet with state religion, an un-augmented singer in an age of modification, is skilfully drawn. She is on tour, performing live to select audiences, but it is immediately apparent that this is a cover for something else, a mission she does not trust herself to complete. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that she may not even wish to succeed, though she can't afford to fail. As she moves through the upper world, Taro, the other key protagonist, ventures above from the Undertow. He is a teenager who makes his living as a whore. Having lived under the protection of an Angel, he struggles to survive after her murder. Both protagonists are ignorant, but neither is innocent. Each of them is propelled by external forces to search for the same person and neither of them has the skills to do the job competently. Each eventually overcomes their limitations, even if the only power they really have is in choosing their own deaths - which is not to say they die.

The levels of threat that Taro and Elarn face is unusually subtle where the destruction of the City seems likely. Some of the tensest writing in the book involves Taro trying to climb frayed netting without falling to his death, for example, and a dislocated finger causes him considerable difficulties. Elarn suffers exquisitely from social embarrassments, barely able to act for fear of appearing too judgemental or terribly unsophisticated. Against the casual destruction of worlds, which Neal Asher employs, this might seem trivial, but it reinforces the humanity of the main characters, helping us to identify with their struggles for the control of their own lives. It is only this struggle which eventually carries the book past the identikit approach to the setting.
Principles of Angels

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