Over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten to know the young author writing under the name Aubrey Hansen. I reviewed her debut novella, Red Rain, last July, and in September I promoted her latest, Peter’s Angel, sight-unseen on the day of its release. Now, five months later, having read it, reflected on it, and gone over much of it in some detail, it’s long past time for my review.
You’ll recall from my earlier review that I found Red Rain competently written but “vaguely unsatisfying” and even frustrating due to deep-seated “issues” (I will not say “problems”) entangled in the roots of the development of the book, some of them (e.g. sparseness in style and narrative to the point of minimalism) probably intentional. (I am somewhat excited and somewhat anxious about the sequel, co-written with the author of and based on a Red Rain fan-fic I “bounced off” fairly violently but promises to be very different in at least some of the areas that made me “unsatisfied” with Red Rain.)
Fortunately, Peter’s Angel suffers from very few of the same issues. It’s anything but minimalist—it feels about twice as long as Red Rain, and it’s only the first third of the story! But the description is often lush, the settings (entirely unlike the stark, hauntingly empty corridors of Red Rain and (numerous) characters are richly drawn, and seemingly nearly every scene is marked by the little details that Miss Hansen’s earlier book so notably omitted. If you look closely you can begin to see the “skeleton” on which the story hangs, but it is not nearly so obvious as the three-act structure of Red Rain.
Where Red Rain was somewhat pointedly driven by its themes (which were admirably handled! and that is not a criticism), Peter’s Angel is driven by its characters. Themes are there—strong themes—but they seem to arise naturally from the setting and the characters, rather than being served by them. Like Red Rain, this is unapologetically Christian fiction, but Miss Hansen is anything but “preachy”—one of the advantages of setting this in an early nineteenth century alternate New England (about which a little more below) is that having a character quote from or paraphrase even an obscure Bible passage is entirely plausible. There were a few places where this felt somewhat clumsy in my first reading (though I should have passed one by now in my re-read, and I haven’t noticed it again), but if anything there’s less explicit “Christianity” than I might expect from my (fairly limited) knowledge of the period.
In keeping with the size of the story (this being only the first third, and not a short novel by any means), the cast is rather large, including four point-of-view characters. And this is decidedly not one of those books where an “ensemble cast” of implausibly likable characters work together toward one goal without conflict with no explanation of why or how this is possible. Instead, while all the point-of-view characters, and nearly all the main characters, are convincing, not all of them are (immediately) likable by any stretch. In fact, some of the point-of-view characters vehemently dislike each other, and the complexities of the relationships between the major characters (even aside from the main political and military conflicts!) add substantial weight to what Miss Hansen has produced. They also mean that (so far) she hasn’t had to resort to the misunderstandings, follies, and character stupidities that even some otherwise-most-excellent authors and books have relied on to create drama.
The story is highly engrossing; when I got my copy, I could scarcely put it down, even though I had intended to spend some time that day writing a letter. And in my current re-read, which is supposed to be producing a detailed critique, I’ve several times had to go back over a series of pages because the story carried me away. (It’s a testament to Miss Hansen’s skill that, first, Peter’s Angel can stand this kind of detailed attention, and second, after devouring it in the space of a day or so I wanted to reread it that carefully.)
But on that closer examination, there are some things about the world Miss Hansen has built that don’t quite seem to fit. These mostly have to do with the political situation: most egregiously, in the fiercely patriotic “independent State” of Rhode Island, where the passions that led to the (in her world failed) Revolution still run high, yet to keep the peace they (grudgingly) pay the “tyrant Duke” of neighboring New Britain whatever amount of “tribute” he demands each year. And Duke Edric, who took the throne from his brother in a (to say the least) disputed succession, seems to have a far more free hand in military and foreign affairs than I can remember colonial governors having. As with Red Rain, these (and other, lesser, similar items) are (nearly) essential for the story to work; fortunately, they are less difficult than the “issues” my review of that novella identified, and could conceivably be plausibly explained in the narrative (perhaps in the next volume, and added to this one if she revises it for a “collector’s edition” of the series). In fact, these only rise to the level of “potential issues” because Miss Hansen made this alternate history, rather than Ruritanian (a change she only announced a month and a half before release); if it had remained set in a couple of countries either unconnected to any real geography or in some fictional isolated valleys in Europe, they would merely be “cultural oddities” in her worldbuilding, but with the background of the Sons of Liberty they’re somewhat problematic.
Still, though, Peter’s Angel is an excellent beginning; I feel my sight-unseen release-day purchase was justified, and I’ve given one copy away already, will give another copy away once I’ve finished my current pass through it, and if the other two volumes are as good and she publishes a hardback “collector’s edition” I plan to buy that. Peter’s Angel is quite good; the saga could even rise to “tremendous.”