Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Roanhorse, Tread of Angels (2022)

Rebecca Roanhorse, Tread of Angels. Solaris, 2022. Pp. 176. ISBN 978-1-7861-8874-8. £9.99.

Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The story begins in a gambling joint in Goetia, a mining town in the mountains run by a privileged elite. It’s an unholy place and Celeste, a dealer at the card tables of the Eden, “Perdition Street’s premiere gambling and drinking establishment,” has seen her share of squalor, degradation, and exploitation and there’s the obligatory saloon-fight in the first ten pages. But when her sister Mariel, a singer at the Eden, is arrested for a particularly nasty murder, Celeste is forced to embark upon a quest to prove her sister’s innocence. In doing so, she sees even more of the town’s darker side than she ever thought existed.

So far, the plot of a kind of noir Western. But the world in which this is set is the aftermath of the War between Heaven and Hell. The miners of Eden are digging not for gold and silver but “divinity,” a substance created by the fall to Earth of the demon Abbadon. Divinity powers machinery, including automata and flying machines. The elite who run the town are privileged indeed—they are the Elect, in contrast to the Fallen, literally marked by a “telltale ring of gold around dark eyes and a pair of curling ram’s horns.” It is the Fallen who can trace the lodes of Divinity and are immune to the side-effects that can send the Elect insane: thus, both Elect and Fallen need each other, but only mingle as equals amid the iniquity of Perdition Street. Otherwise, the Fallen are subject to the domination of the Elect and their police-force, the Virtues, subject to the Archangels.

Celeste herself is half-Elect, and at one point she recalls “the hours of lessons her father had forced upon her, hoping to pass her off in Elect society.” There’s a clear subtext here, therefore. But the moral lines, as might be expected in a fiction which is in part a noir murder-story, are hardly clear-cut. As the story progresses, we also learn that Celeste has had a relationship with Abraxas, a genuine demon lord who returns into her life—and we also discover, as the murder-plot becomes deeper and murkier, that Celeste is probably not a very nice person herself.

Roanhorse’s world is vividly described in its physicality but vague in its background. This vagueness is probably deliberate, but it challenges the reader. The nods to the conventions of the Western suggest that this is a kind of alternative USA, but although there are references to the “capital” (State? Federal?) and “back East,” no other location is named. The demon Abraxas is fond of quoting Latin tags, claiming that Latin is close to the “old demonic tongue,” but he is also noted as appreciating “the old Roman philosophers.” Hypatia, the proprietor of the Eden, had fashioned the establishment “after the ancient city of Alexandria,” but we have no real sense of when the apocalyptic battle between God and Lucifer, in which Abbadon was felled by the angel of Death Azrael, took place in relationship to the human timeline. At one point Abraxas is shown as reading what seems to be John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, he says as he closes the book, is “all balderdash,anyway.” It looks, however, from both the plot development and the relationship between Celeste and Abraxas, that Roanhorse will explore the world in more detail. Tread of Angels is a short novel (the author in her Afterword describes it as a novella), and it certainly feels like there must be more to come.

It is worth reading for its plot and characters: Ibrahim of the Order of Chamuel, which administers justice in the territory, is particularly interesting, though there is some neat humour in Grace Walter, the reporter for the scandal-sheet the Goetia Daily Howler, who on her first meeting with Celeste is seem trying to come up with a snappy soubriquet for the murderer—is the “Slaying Chanteuse” better than the “Slaying Songbird”? But it feels to me that to get the full impact of the moral issues behind the story, the worldbuilding would need to stand out more proudly and become less of a pastiche.

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