Let me put my cards on the table – I’m a fan of Tepper’s writing. A Plague of Angels absolutely blew me away. I still vividly recall the main details of the plot years later – something that happens with only a handful of books, given my shocking memory. So it was a red letter day, when I discovered this book on the library shelves.
Margaret Bain is the only child on Phobos, a human colony working on a doomed project to transform Mars into a garden planet. To keep away the suffocating demons of loneliness and boredom, she invents imaginary companions, for her own alter ego – a queen, a spy, a tough boy, a healer…
When the Phobos project is shut down, Margaret is forced to return to Earth with her parents. Mankind’s birthplace is impoverished, reduced to trading the only viable product the planet has left to offer: human slaves. No longer a little girl, Margaret’s imaginary friends are lost to her, but in this harsh new world she is forced to make some hard choices and each life-changing choice results in a different Margaret spinning off: her imaginary selves are refining their own personae, acquiring their own histories, living their own lives.
And as the Margarets scatter off across the universe, unaware of their other selves, each has to struggle to survive by her (or his) wits – until the discovery of a threat to Earth and to the whole of humanity. It’s time for the Margarets to return home, for the survival of the human race depends on them… all of them.
Like all Tepper’s plots, it is a nifty twist on a familiar theme underpinning many a fantasy series – that of a special person selected by reason of his/her ability and birth to fulfil a particular prophesy. What Tepper does, is give that fantasy staple a science fiction spin, so that we have a classic space opera adventure spanning a number of worlds – think of Elizabeth Moon meeting Juliet Marillier… The various worlds and the particular plight of humankind are depicted with the clarity and precision you’d expect from a writer of Tepper’s pedigree, giving the reader a rich, three dimensional universe to enjoy. But what holds this book together is the narratives of the Margarets as they struggle to survive in a variety of difficult and largely life threatening environments.
It is here that I ran up against a problem – there are seven Margarets out there and for my money, I’d have preferred five, or even three. This is a fairly hefty book at over 500 hundred pages of reasonably small print and after an absolutely cracking start, the pace sagged slightly in the middle as I struggled to keep up with them all. Tepper makes the task as easy as possible – each Margaret’s name is altered, depending on where she ends up, with one changing gender, while the scene changes are clearly labelled as we switch viewpoints. There certainly was no bland blending of their experiences, which could have all too easily happened in the hands of a lesser writer. However, the fact remains that I did get a bit bogged down in the middle and I do believe that having so many major protagonists to follow is a very big ask for the reader.
The effort certainly paid off, though. As the book neared the end, the pace once more picked up and as we approached the climax, I was completely immersed in the plot. I love the mix of science fiction and fantasy within the story – no one does it better than Tepper and the ending produced some unexpected twists with a completely satisfactory conclusion. If you are a fantasy fan who doesn’t generally dip your toe into the techie world of science fiction, or a sci fi follower who can’t be bothered with all that wafty magic stuff – give this book a try. It is a substantial, enjoyable read by one of the best speculative fiction authors of her generation.