What began with a single, stand-alone novel of a fascinating new world has grown into a series of considerable popularity. I discovered Samaria partway into the story arc; my review copy of Jovah's Angel came with a paperback of Archangel too. Sharon Shinn captivated my attention with her knack for making the impossible sound plausible, and the unbearable irresistible. The series is also noteworthy for exemplifying the power of interstitial fiction.
If you want to read the novels in the order they were written, the sequence goes: Archangel (1996), Jovah's Angel (1997), The Alleluia Files (1998), Angelica (2003), and Angel-Seeker (2004). There is good reason to do this, for the author makes excellent use of building and upsetting expectations as the series progresses. Having become familiar with "angel-seeker" as a peculiar sort of prostitute,1 for instance, I was surprised to see that as the title of the latest novel. Each of the books stands alone, without drowning the reader in repetitive explanations; but the best introductory material appears in the first one, Archangel.
Conversely, if you want to read the novels in the order of internal chronology, the sequence goes: Angelica, Archangel, Angel-Seeker, Jovah's Angel, and The Alleluia Files. The story told in Angelica is briefly mentioned in Archangel: "I have heard the tale of the angel who swept away Susannah," says Rachel (p. 109). Archangel takes place about five hundred years after the settling of Samaria, (Archangel, p. 107) and some hundreds of years after Angelica. Just after Archangel comes Angel-Seeker, reprising some of the same characters (Angel-Seeker, p. 21). One hundred and fifty years after that pair comes Jovah's Angel. Finally, another hundred years later, comes The Alleluia Files. In this case, the appeal lies in watching the people of Samaria move gradually from a low level of technology to higher levels and struggle with the changes that brings.
The series as a whole chronicles the life of a world, not a handful of characters. Each book has its own cast, and most of the books are separated by at least a century. Only two share some of the same characters, Archangel and Angel-Seeker, and even those take a very different focus on events and individuals. Yet the novels frequently mention people appearing in other volumes; the history has a tight weave. Much that happens in one, influences what happens later; indeed, the entire plot of The Alleluia Files springs directly from the events of Jovah's Angel. It is not easy to maintain a sense of series continuity over such a long span of time, yet Shinn manages to do so—perhaps because she puts so much care into making the Samaria itself familiar to readers, almost a character itself.
The planet Samaria holds a human colony of modest size and development. Most of the population resides on one continent, divided into three provinces: Gaza, Bethel, and Jordana. Later, the other continent, Ysral, becomes important too. The starship Jehovah brought the settlers to Samaria long ago, and now most of their descendents worship it as the god Jovah. The angels use song to command the ship to perform "miracles" necessary for survival on what would otherwise be a very marginally inhabitable world.
Archangel tells the story of Rachel, also known as Raheli sia a Manderra, and Gabriel, who is about to become the leader of Samaria. Jovah chooses the Archangel and the Archangel's mate, the angelica. Rachel, raised among the nomadic Edori, has no interest in becoming angelica; she and Gabriel form a quarrelsome couple at best. But the current Archangel, Raphael, refuses to step down and challenges the god's power. After Raphael destroys himself and his followers, Rachel and Gabriel are left to pick up the pieces.
In Jovah's Angel, the god has mysteriously stopped listening to many of the angels' prayers. When the Archangel Delilah gets injured, Jovah unexpectedly replaces her with the mousy Alleluia. Aided by two clever fellows, Noah and Caleb—and somewhat hampered by the despondent Delilah—Alleluia must figure out how to restore fluent communication between Jovah and his angels. This winds up requiring a trip to the starship for repairs.
The Alleluia Files picks up the thread of questioning Jovah's true nature which, throughout the history of Samaria, very few people have known. This story follows Tamar, an atheist of the Jacobite sect trying to prove the starship's existence, and her angelic sister Lucinda—fraternal twins separated at birth. Together with the angel Jared and the Edori sailor Reuben, they face down the Archangel Bael, who wants to keep Jehovah a secret to maintain his own power.
Then skip back in time to Angelica, which elaborates the tale of "Susannah the Stolen" first mentioned in Archangel. The angel Gaaron indeed carries her away from an Edori camp to become his angelica—but she turns out to be a bit less reluctant than originally implied. They quickly find more important things to worry about, as they learn about mysterious strangers destroying campsites full of people. This evolves into an outright invasion, as people from another planet try to take over Samaria. Susannah helps Jehovah (whom she calls by the Edori name, Yovah) destroy the invaders.
Set just after Archangel, the novel Angel-Seeker details the cleanup effort and the establishment of Cedar Hills to replace the destroyed angel hold of Windy Point. Obadiah, a supporting character in Archangel, pursues diplomatic relations with the troublesome Jansai—and winds up falling in love with the Jansai girl Rebekah. Meanwhile Elizabeth, the angel-seeker of the title, winkles her way into Cedar Hills. Their respective entanglements ultimately challenge a substantial part of Jansai culture, its oppression of women.
What Sharon Shinn does best is bend the rules into interesting new shapes. In science fiction, writers follow the laws of known science, occasionally fudging things a bit to allow for such favorite motifs as faster-than-light travel, but rarely contradicting the laws outright. In fantasy, writers present some set of laws for magic and then follow those. Many people consider science fantasy nothing more than a copout: science fiction written by writers who cannot be bothered to do their homework. Shinn disproves this by demonstrating that great science fantasy entails rewriting the laws of science—and then following them (Ledesma). More on that shortly, in the section about "Ludicrous Science."
An important part of interstitial fiction is fusion2. Interstitial fiction covers all stories that draw from two or more genres. Fusion refers to the ones that go beyond borrowing tidbits, and would absolutely come apart at the seams if you removed either aspect. Samaria reaches absolute fusion. Elements of science fiction include starships, advanced weaponry, and sophisticated electronics. Elements of fantasy include angels, magical/miraculous events, and the overall tone. (Romance also plays a major role throughout every novel; see below for more on this.) These interpenetrate so completely that it becomes impossible to separate the science from the fantasy.
The language use in particular supports this fusion. All the science gets described in the terminology of fantasy, mysticism, and religion. It makes familiar objects sound exotic and exciting. In this regard, Samaria resembles other interstitial masterpieces in which a science fiction setting (planet originally reached by starship) reads much like fantasy. Anne McCaffrey's Pern (Sariel) and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover (Internet Encyclopedia) exemplify this tradition. Furthermore, Shinn's vivid description creates a delightful reading experience for the audience.
Consider this representation of a computer in Mount Sinai, one of three such places in Samaria:
Here, a glowing blue plate was set into the stone wall with a rolling chair even now placed casually before it; this was where the oracle would sit to commune with the god. [...] He sat with a certain reverence before the pulsing screen, running his hands experimentally over the strange hieroglyphics on the shelf before him. When he touched a symbol, it would appear on the face of the blue plate, forming words in a language so old, only the oracles could learn it; and when the god responded, he did so in the same forgotten tongue. They called this bright screen the "interface," though it was a word that had little meaning to them. (Jovah's Angel, pp 8-9)
Something mundane to most readers now becomes, through the eyes of the Samarian characters, strange and numinous.
One woman, Susannah, frequently dreams of the starship Jehovah and later winds up visiting it:
She was in a place of glass and ivory and silver. [...] There was the wide, blank screen with the flickering lines; there was the incomprehensible map laid across a translucent surface. At stations scattered throughout this brightly lit chamber were variations of the interface that Mahalah used in her own chamber, and that Susannah had seen so many times in her dreams. [...] It was as if she had skipped up a street made of moonbeams to come to rest on an avenue of stars. One quarter of the room was nothing but glass, and it all seemed to overlook the constellations. (Angelica, pp 456-458)
Reminiscent of the "chariot of fire" descriptions in the Bible, passages like these make it easy to think of teleportation and star travel as magical rather than technological marvels, the way they seem to most of the Samarians.
Conversely, the elements of fantasy are somehow grounded in science. Shinn seems to delight in finding ways to make the mystical material. Fewer authors seem to take this route. Among them is James Alan Gardner, whose novel Commitment Hour features a culture where technology is recognized as such—but nevertheless interpreted as working on behalf of the gods. (MacLaurin)
In many cultures, people pray for rain. In fantasy novels, prayers or magical spells often result in rain. In Samaria, it begins like this:
Aloft in the icy air, the Heldoras a flattened beige zigzag beneath him, Gabriel flung his arms wide and began to sing. [...] The thin dark air was a vacuum. It sucked up even the sound of his own voice rising from his chest, carrying it in an almost discernible arc upward, a golden path of notes spinning from his mouth through the black layer of the firmament to Jovah's ear. [...] It was the song for winter rain coming from the west. (Archangel, p. 79)
What actually happens, as Jehovah explains, is this:
I cannot precisely control the weather, but I have the capacity of altering the weather patterns if the angels sing a certain combination of notes that signal me to perform functions that will affect air temperatures and wind formations on the planet below us. [...] If an angel prays for a particular kind of rain, I respond with a prescribed combination of chemicals. (The Alleluia Files, p. 449)
Because most characters perceive only the former, not the latter, they interpret this as magic. The revelation of the god Jovah as the starship Jehovah proves shattering to some. And yet—the author's descriptions of both spirit and machine remain sublime.
Another staple of fantasy, and romance, is true love. It often comes with some rare, special, mystical signal to the lovers which alerts them to each other's presence and significance. When Rachel first sees Gabriel, the result is this:
A sudden pain seared her right arm, and she clapped her other hand over the burn, sure she had been stung by a spark spit from the fire. But her fingers touched only a glass coolness, and she quickly looked down to find the source of her distress. Through the fingers of her left hand she saw opal colors writhing in the Kiss of the God. (Archangel, p. 22)
The Kiss is a clever little device, described more fully later in the series:
He handed her a strange contraption that looked like nothing so much as an opal-backed spider, only bigger than any spider she'd ever seen. [...] The top portion was smooth, beautiful, gemlike, an extremely hard glass filled with opaque shadows. The bottom half consisted of a tangle of metallic black wires, stiff but bendable. (The Alleluia Files, p. 16)
According to Samarian folklore, the Kiss lights up when true lovers meet. According to Jehovah, however:
Each kiss has a unique electronic pattern [...] Which is how I am able to track and identify everyone who has been, as you put it, dedicated. [...] I am usually able to calculate, almost from birth, which offspring bear gene clusters that I think would be valuably combined with another person's gene clusters. (Jovah's Angel, p. 366)
No matter how tumultuous the relationship, such characters do customarily fall in love. By the fifth book, readers know to look for this. So in Angel-Seeker, the author pulls something sneaky instead:
Rebekah could not even remember the first time she'd noticed the fugitive colors loitering in her Kiss. When she tried to cast her mind back, it seemed they had always been there, traces of ice and opal hovering just below the edge of noticing, but she knew that wasn't true. (p. 334)
It turns out to be because Rebekah is pregnant by the angel Obadiah, presumably carrying—although the book ends before the pregnancy does—a cherub child.
In Samaria, we see a wonderful blend of science and fantasy. Few of the characters can sustain much distinction between the two; even the atheists tend to succumb to their sense of wonder. All of this illustrates Arthur C. Clarke's observations that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
The art of science fantasy lies in making the impossible sound plausible, and the unbelievable inevitable. Shinn excels at this. I read Archangel all the way through (staying up, if I recall correctly, to a ridiculous hour because I couldn't put it down) and only after I finished the book did the logical part of my brain kick in to say, "Hey, wait a minute! That couldn't happen." The plot and characterization hang together so well that peculiarities of the setting just seem natural in that context.
Plenty of science fiction authors bend the laws of known science a smidgen, so I won't count the spaceships or the superweapons. The quirks of Samaria go beyond extrapolative science, however, into the realm of ludicrous science. In order for this world to exist and its stories to play out, the author had to rewrite quite a bit of reality.
First, consider the angels. A typical description of their characteristics goes like this:
"Angels have been blessed with other gifts than their wings."
"Body heat," he murmured.
"And disproportionate strength," she added. "I could carry a man three times my own weight—though not far, I must admit. But you—I could carry you three hundred miles. Although it might take a full day." (Jovah's Angel, p 254)
Later in the story, Jehovah explains the origin of angels:
One of the scientists on board, Dr. Hoyt Freecastle, had been an expert in artificial limbs and tissue regeneration back on Eleison, and he had long been interested in the theory of creating a human being that could fly under its own power. [...] he created a whole host of angels and, indeed, altered their genetic makeup so the wings would be passed on biologically to future generations. (Jovah's Angel, p 362)
The catch is, winged humanoids simply cannot fly. (Schmidt, p. 87) Shinn gives a nod to this fact by mentioning some adaptations that would help, but no amount of finagling would suffice in real life. The laws of aerodynamics, gravity, and biology make flying angels impossible—until you move from the realm of science fiction to science fantasy.
Next comes the challenge of hearing angelic prayers. As Gabriel tells Rachel:
Angels say that Jovah will hear a whisper uttered anywhere on earth. But the fact is, there seem to be certain places on Samaria to which Jovah's ears are attuned. The Plain of Sharon, of course. Hagar's retreat in the Corinni Mountains. A valley in southeastern Jordana. (Archangel, p. 89)
Antennae in these places detect nearby sounds and transmit them to the starship. But three antennae, no matter how sophisticated, should not suffice to cover an entire continent. Furthermore, repeated emphasis falls on how angels fly as high as possible when praying:
He ascended effortlessly into the opalescent whiteness of the cloudless morning sky. Higher and higher, aiming straight for the zenith of the heavens, so high that even to his superheated blood the air seemed cool; so high that beyond the blank blueness of the sky he could sense an eternal, waiting night. Jovah could hear a prayer whispered upon the earth, but a prayer shouted from the heavens reached his ear faster. The angels had always believed that the nearer they were to their god, the better he would listen. (Archangel, p. 79)
This makes for terrific symbolism but not acoustics. Sound carries poorly in thin air, and not at all in vacuum. So the angels ought to be beyond reach of earthbound antennae—but Jovah's satellites could not hear them either, since satellites must remain above atmosphere or their orbits swiftly decay.
Perhaps the most spectacular example concerns other things that angels can pray for besides weather intercessions, such as medicines and grain. In Rachel's time, a valuable plant called manna had died out. Rachel sings the appropriate prayer, and this happens:
"I don't think it's sand," Gabriel said. All around him was the oddest, softest hissing sound as the tiny grains whispered through the air and sprinkled to the ground. [...]
"No, I believe you're right. It's—well, rice or something. Seeds, I think." (Archangel, p. 385)
Objects entering atmosphere from space tend to burn up on entry, although some reach the ground.3 Seeds would not survive the trip from starship's hold to planet's surface—certainly not in a condition to sprout! Yet sprout they do, according to later books in the series, which mention manna plants.
Notice that all of these examples form core concepts of Samaria. The whole series emphasizes angels, and Samarian culture probably could not survive without them—Edori independence and Jansai stubbornness notwithstanding. Inextricably tied to this is Jehovah's ability to hear angelic prayers and respond by altering the weather or by sending a hail of medicines or seeds. This world follows its own internal logic; the changes are neither random nor trivial.
The culture described in the stories could not exist without these elements, which could not happen by the strict application of scientific laws as we currently understand them. The stories are well worth reading, and that justifies the author's alterations. That forms a major foundation of science fantasy in general: the ability to tell stories that could not be told according to the conventions of science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre.
No matter what your writing teachers may have told you, if the story is good enough, editors and readers will forgive anything. The catch lies in that "good enough." Most of the time, scientific errors amount to just that: errors. Writers get sloppy, fail to look up the necessary references, and therefore make mistakes. But if you know exactly what you're doing, and if you can tell a story that glues the reader's eyeballs to the page—then you can get away with whatever you wish, in the cause of advancing that story. Shinn may wink at the letter but still captures the spirit of the law.
Romance and Politics
All of the Samaria novels share these two plot components, although the details vary. Shinn balances small-scale interpersonal relationships against large-scale governmental and racial relationships. As co-plots, they work together very well: politically savvy characters find their love lives a horrifying mess, but taking good care of Samaria eventually forces quarreling couples to cooperate.
The charm lies in the diversity of approach. Archangel and The Alleluia Files both feature an Archangel abusing his power for fear of losing it. Angelica and Jovah's Angel involve saving the world from destruction. Angel-Seeker then doubles back to show the painstaking process of restoration. In each case, someone must handle mutually antagonistic groups well enough to gain their aid in solving the problems at hand. One of my favorite examples appears at the beginning of Jovah's Angel:
Job, we are in a crisis here! [...] The Bethel farmers are crying for succor, which the Manadavvi landowners can give them, but at a price no one can afford. Half of Breven is turning into some kind of factory as they build more and more of those machines—and who is to regulate the merchants? Who is to stop the storms? Who is—the angel Alleluia! Who will listen to her? (p. 9)
Samaria houses a number of distinct cultural groups. The angel holds are elegant almost to the point of decadence. The gregarious Edori live in peace; the belligerent Jansai often cause trouble. Though both nomadic, their lifestyles differ radically. Luminaux, the Blue City, stands out for its beauty and creativity. There are peasants and merchants and a good many other folk as well. Shinn carefully describes each of the cultures, from the inside and the outside, as with the Edori here:
What you will learn is that everyone loves you as much as your own clan does. You are welcome at every fire, in every tent. (Angelica, p. 273)
Crossing these social and ethnic lines provides the tension in most of the romances such as: hold-raised Gabriel and Gaaron falling for Edori-raised Rachel and Susannah, respectively; hold-raised Obadiah falling for Jansai-raised Rebekah; and Alleluia, raised in obscure Chahiela, falling for the Luminauzi Caleb.
Also amusing is the range of personalities. Archangel begins with some motifs ubiquitous in the romance genre: a handsome, arrogant man, Gabriel, paired with a gorgeous, spitfire woman, Rachel; an arranged marriage between the two of them; and a forbidden union between Nathaniel and Magdalena, both angels. Rachel and Gabriel get into spectacular fights:
"You may take me to your stupid Plain, you may have all your angels and all your friends gathered around, but if I don't want to open my mouth, no power on this whole world can make me sing. And you know it. Take away from me whatever you want. I can take away more from you."
They glared at each other for a full minute, both of them too angry to speak. Rachel's hands were balled so hard at her sides that her whole body was cramped to maintain the pressure. Gabriel, before her, looked like the incarnation of divine vengeance. (Archangel, p. 212)
But neither Susannah in Angelica nor Alleluia in Jovah's Angel are especially beautiful, and Alleluia is also shy. Gaaron comes across not only as practical but downright stuffy ... yet still, readers find him as irresistible as Susannah eventually does:
His arms went around her first, bulky and uncertain; it was like being taken in the massive embrace of an oak, unused to clasping humans. Next his wings enfolded her, more cautiously, settling down on her with the weight and color of sunlight. She kissed him—or he kissed her—there was, in the whole world, nothing but mouth and cheek and feather and arm. (Angelica, p. 485)
Shinn does an unusually good job of keeping her lovers both flawed enough to be plausible and virtuous enough to be likable.
Religion in Speculative Fiction
I have a taste for angel stories. They are difficult to write well, but I read them anyway, looking for the best. Some authors capitalize on the sense of wonder generated by angels; others tackle difficult spiritual issues. Shinn does both, often at the same time. SciFan offers recommended reading lists by theme, if you want to investigate further (Travers & Bellais).
One question common to angel fiction concerns the nature of reality in general and God in particular. The Edori beliefs differ from most other Samarians:
Yovah sees everything and knows everything. He hears every prayer. He exalts the virtuous and wreaks vengeance on the wicked [...] But Yovah is the tool, and the nameless one created him just to watch over us. (Archangel, p. 106)
As mentioned earlier, Alleluia visited Jehovah and found the revelation crushing. (Susannah went aboard too, but thought it a dream like her others, and returned home with faith intact.) Later, the atheistic Jacobites follow rumors of her discovery, though it exposes them to persecution:
I do not believe in the god, and I have no faith in angels, either. [...] if he only has five or six different kinds of drugs, and that's what you get every time you pray, then I think this Jovah of yours has a limited stock, such as a machine might store, and he is not a god at all. (The Alleluia Files, pp. 132-133)
So the Samarian worldview evolves quite a lot over the course of the series. Another excellent novel, Lyda Morehouse's Archangel Protocol, also explores questions of cosmology and reality.
Prayer, another popular motif, runs throughout the entire Samaria series. Indeed, Samarians must pray, or be obliterated by their own ship:
Certain functions have been laid down unalterably in my functions. [...] If the Gloria is not sung, I respond with a blast of destructive energy. (The Alleluia Files, p. 449)
However, as previously established, Jehovah controls the weather and sends supplies to the colonists, without which they would not survive. The repeating thread of angelic song and prayer both unifies the series and distinguishes the culture. Indeed, many authors evoke the power of cherubic voices; the rogue angel in Metal Angel becomes a rock star. (Mandrachio)
Angel stories create an interesting arc through the genres. Some are pure fantasy, like Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, where most of the main characters descend from actual angels (Strauss). Most are urban fantasy, like Nancy Springer's Metal Angel, in which Volos tries to escape God's service; or science fantasy, like A Calculus of Angels by J. Gregory Keyes, with ethereal angels as human tools (Kimmel).
On the whole, people often refuse to take such novels seriously. Yet these authors challenge us with the oldest questions of all: Who are we? What are we here for? Does some benevolent Power watch over us, or not? In the right hands, that makes for a potent plot.
In Samaria and its people, Sharon Shinn brings us a unique worldview full of wonder and romance. Yet she also prods us to think about what we read and what we believe. Her stories suggest that beyond skepticism lies a certain awareness that the universe holds a magic all its own, no matter what the technology may look like. She celebrates the passion of lovers and the universal human dream of flying on feathered wings. And she proves once and for all that the art of writing speculative fiction comes down to knowing how and when to pursue the spirit of the law.
- "A woman who seduces angels in hopes of bearing an angel child and thus being accepted into the hold." (Archangel, p. 142) [back]
- For further discussion of interstitial fiction, see What's in the Wind by Gregory Frost. [back]
- For an explanation of how objects burn up when falling through the atmosphere, see the Educator's Guide to Micrometeorites. [back]