Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Gollancz, 2015, 512p.

Glorious Angels cover

The last of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel.

The city of Glimshard is ruled by an Empress, a young Empress relatively new to the post. She is telepathically linked to other Empresses some of whom rule other cities. She can also influence the minds of those nearby her. Off to the north a war is being fought against creatures known as Karoo which have both animal and human characteristics and are referred to as bioplastic. The arrival in Glimshard of a Karoo known as Tzaban has piqued the interest of locals. Despite his warning that unless the Empire retreats from its course its forces will inevitably be defeated by the Karoo he is involved in training troops there.

The narrative viewpoint shifts between various characters but the tale is mainly carried by Tralane Huntingore who, despite references to witchlight, mage-bolts etc, is to all intents and purposes a scientist, with a laboratory in her house. We first meet her searching out crystals which have properties suitable for use in recovered machines of various sorts, among them a mysterious pair of goggles and a gun which diffuses entropy. Under the Empress’s orders Tralane is accompanied by Tzaban through a portal to the site of an artefact containing – or being – a prize everyone in power on this world bar the Karoo seems to seek to control.

The text feels oddly balanced, though. Towards the beginning Robson expends a lot of time in describing Glimshard society; there is in particular a scene illustrating an aspect of its sexual mores which doesn’t really illustrate character nor advance the plot. It may be that by that point in the book the norms in Glimshard have not been sufficiently established. Yet it is a strength that Robson eschews any egregious information dumping. Though it is important to this world that women/females are the powers behind it that fact is almost incidental to the narrative and never overtly stressed except for Karoo queens being all powerful with no male able to withstand their influence. The latter parts of the book, though, almost feel like a different novel entirely as plot gallops in and sweeps all before it. Something which may be an invention by Robson (I don’t recall reading of anything similar before, but then my reading of fantasy lags way behind that of SF) is that Karoo assimilate knowledge by eating each other – or humans.

The “magic” is treated matter of factly, in effect as if it were technology: apart from the influencing of minds by the Empresses and the Karoo’s knowledge-gaining attributes it may in fact be technology in our terms. The goggles show a certain star in the sky to be a manufactured object. This points to a science-fictional reading of the text (as does the revelation of the nature of the artefact the fighting was about.) Both suggest a sequel may be forthcoming.

Glorious Angels is good enough to be worthwhile reading; but an award contender? Not for me, I’m afraid.

Pedant’s corner:- The first section uses plural pronouns to describe a certain individual. Granted Robson wishes the person’s identity to be unknown until the viewpoint character finds out who it is – but as I have just demonstrated, what is wrong with using the gender neutral it or its in this context? (It would perhaps have been too far for Robson’s intentions for this scene for her to (re)invent a universal non gender-specific pronoun such as “hir” or “hem”.) Parillus’ (Parillus’s, x 2) “she badly didn’t want to lose the goggles,” (I know what Robson means but the construction is awkward,) betted (bet; several instances,) a missing full stop, (more than once,) Isabeu (Isabeau,) ass (x 2; though arse is used elsewhere,) “one who is making the most of themselves” (himself,) Empress’ (numerous instances; though once we had Empress’s,) ‘“He’s an asshole”’ (arsehole is so much more expressive,) “she laid back” (lay back,) Zarazin (Zharazin,) “where she had laid” (lain,) are are, (one are is enough,) “the Sorority” is treated as a plural noun rather than a singular one, “how many far better woman had surely been here before her” (women,) “either side of the processional carpets were filled with people” (both sides were – or, either side was – filled,) “recognised a lot of faces from the University crowd seated or talking together” (okay, faces is a synecdoche here but the sentence reads very oddly,) dais’ (dais’s,) denoument (denouement,) had known and laid in wait (lain in wait,) “was not without precedence” (precedent,) “This was the minimum cruise height for the landscape, any less ran the risk of damaging structures, and more was profligate, a waste of energy” (optimum cruise height, then,) “his intent distaste of the sound” (intense distaste of?) “she couldn’t hold it in longer” (any longer,) “None were unable to stand against them” (the sense was the complete opposite, ie “none were able to stand against them”,) lay up (lie up,) “where the science team were still working” (the team was,) harness’ (harness’s,) sprung (sprang.)

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