I met Jaine Fenn at Bristolcon, where she was the sole female science fiction writer speaking on the various panels. I had a chance to chat to her during the evening and made a mental note to get hold of her writing. I’m very glad I did, as her debut novel on my Kindle made a long train journey zip by in a blur of excitement and action.
Khesh City floats above the surface of the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. Topside, it’s extravagant, opulent, luxurious; the Undertow is dark, twisted and dangerous. Khesh City is a place where nothing is forbidden – but it’s also a democracy, of sorts, a democracy by assassination, policed by the Angels, the elite, state-sponsored killers who answer only to the Minister, their enigmatic master. Taro lived with Malia, his Angel aunt, one of the privileged few, until a strange man bought his body for the night, then followed him home and murdered Malia in cold blood. Taro wants to find the killer who ruined his future, but he’s struggling just to survive in the brutal world of the Undertow. Elarn Reen is a famous musician, sent to Khesh City as the unwilling agent of mankind’s oldest enemy, the Sidhe. Though they come from different worlds, Taro and Elarn’s fates are linked, their lives apparently forfeit to other people’s schemes. As their paths converge, it becomes clear that the lives of everyone in Khesh City, from the majestic, deadly Angels to the barely-human denizens of the Undertow, are at risk. And Taro and Elarn, a common prostitute and an uncommon singer, are Khesh City’s only chance.
I know that my rant about blurting blurbs must be getting tedious – but I have heavily edited the above because if I hadn’t, you would have encountered a couple of major Spoilers in the opening action. Once more, I am grateful that I never read the back cover before starting a book.
So… this floating city with the privileged living a vastly better life than the underclass who – literally – struggle for survival under their feet – is it convincing and does it rise above the inevitable clichéd feel of that description? Yes – in my opinion it certainly does. And I’ve been startled to read some really unpleasant, sneering reviews about this book. What places it outside the norm for this genre is that Principles of Angels is completely character-driven. Perhaps the omission of a limited omniscient info-dump is perplexing some of those reviewing the book. Well, it’s fine with me – I happen to think one of the reasons why Fantasy is currently trampling Science Fiction underfoot, is that the majority of best-selling Fantasy authors write punchy, character-led stories which readers find accessible and engrossing. And a large number of Science Fiction writers don’t…
Fenn drops her readers right into the middle of the action in Taro’s viewpoint as he battles for his life – his character sings off the pages from the start and continues to sparkle right through the book. He survives as a prostitute and while Fenn doesn’t flinch from showing us the seamy underbelly of such a trade, at no time does she slide into gratuitous detail. Overall, I felt the world-building was strong and convincing – we see slices of Khesh City from both above and below and I particularly liked Taro’s disorientation when he reaches Topside. The other detail in this book that I appreciated was the dialogue – complete with appropriate slang. Stupidity or absentmindedness (lethal when negotiating hanging walkways with holes or climbing nets) is known as being gappy; in comparison anything commendable is bolted.
The other main protagonist is off-world visitor, Elarn, who is on an unexpected singing tour. Her character is far more opaque – though it rapidly becomes clear that her tour is a cover for another mission. Khesh City is further fleshed out as we get to experience it through Elarn’s viewpoint as a newcomer with access to all the privilige and luxury the City has to offer. However, her plans quickly go awry when she encounters charismatic politician Salik Vidoran.
The pace sweeps onward from the first page and gets ever faster as we reach the climactic ending, which more or less ties everything up while leaving a couple of major issues dangling for the subsequent books in the series. Which means I’ve more opportunities to visit Fenn’s rich, engrossing world. Yay!