YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: Moderate
Oh my goodness, I have to tell you about a post-apocalyptic, battle-for-survival, competent-young-woman-tries-to-protect-her-family story that I think you’ll love.
It’s been six weeks since angels of the apocalypse descended to demolish the modern world. Street gangs rule the day while fear and superstition rule the night. When warrior angels fly away with a helpless little girl, her seventeen-year-old sister Penryn will do anything to get her back.
Anything, including making a deal with an enemy angel.
Raffe is a warrior who lies broken and wingless on the street. After eons of fighting his own battles, he finds himself being rescued from a desperate situation by a half-starved teenage girl.
Traveling through a dark and twisted Northern California, they have only each other to rely on for survival. Together, they journey toward the angels’ stronghold in San Francisco where she’ll risk everything to rescue her sister and he’ll put himself at the mercy of his greatest enemies for the chance to be made whole again.
The setting is awesome
Angels have come to earth and started, well, destroying everything. I am all over this like you wouldn’t believe.
I’m utterly fascinated by the angels and the apocalypse itself. Also, Ee is doing a good job of displaying the fear and desperation for survival that might result from seeing society literally burning to ash around you.
Penryn is awesome
From the first page we get a good idea of Penryn’s character, past and present, and I really, really like her.
Sure, she’s your typical heroine for this genre: mature for her age, self-reliant, and capable of some impressive fighting maneuvers. Unlike some heroines, though, the reason she’s able to fight is both interesting and realistic.
See, Penryn’s mother has an unnamed mental illness (or maybe it’s something else entirely?) that involves her speaking with demons and going to extremes to protect herself and her daughters from monsters. After the accident that left Paige unable to use her legs (Penryn has no idea how it happened, by the way), their mother was in a state of acute mental distress. Then:
Penryn obediently spent five years devoting herself to her lessons, and let me tell you, they’ve paid off. (But not unrealistically so, mind you. She’s impressive but not so amazing that she’s completely confident in her ability to take names. I love this.)
Raffe is awesome
I’ve tried to find just one quick little quote that can display how neat Raffe is, but have decided to do without one–not because I can’t prove he’s neat, but because his neatness is being slowly revealed through his interactions with Penryn (who’s telling the story in first person, present tense). The quotes I especially liked require explanation of their interactions up to that point, and where’s the fun in that?
Penryn’s on a mission, and she’s going to use Raffe–the wingless angel she saved specifically for this purpose–to succeed. She’s certain Paige has been taken to the angels’ headquarters, the aerie (located in San Francisco). She’s also certain that Raffe will have to go back to the aerie to get his wings sewn back on. Thus:
Now, I’m a fan of stories with really high, save-the-world stakes. But there’s a lot to be said for a girl who knows her limits and focuses on what’s most important to her: family.
As a woman who sets a high value to familial bonds (whether blood-related or not), I know you’ll back Penryn one hundred percent on this.
We never see what kind of girl Penryn was before the angels began destroying everything, but we do witness a notable change in her as soon as Paige is abducted and Penryn realizes the gravely-injured Raffe might be the key to getting Paige back.
To put it lightly, it’s not a change Penryn’s happy about.
Penryn is a girl who will do whatever it takes to save her sister, even that which goes against her moral code. This isn’t an uncommon theme in paranormal and fantasy novels, actually, but what is uncommon is how consistently disgusted she is by her own actions.
(Before you go thinking the book’s full of torture, let me assure you that Penryn doesn’t horrify herself terribly often. Adopting monstrosity in the face of a horrifying situation is a theme in this story; torture isn’t.)
Penryn and Raffe’s Interactions
Speaking of how Angelfall bucks against the standards of paranormal novels: Penryn and Raffe have a more realistic relationship than I’m used to seeing in this genre.
Paranormal novels that involve romance commonly (and much to my annoyance) feature powerful woman meeting an even more powerful man, with immediate power-play posturing and immediate (or near-immediate) high-wattage sexual tension on both sides. The woman is significantly less afraid of the man than she should be, and usually tells him so (even if there is an initial, token wave of fear; e.g. Halfway to the Grave), and most of their interactions revolve around that sexual tension and posturing.
Is Penryn a powerful young woman? Yes. Is Raffe significantly more powerful than she is? Yes. Does she immediately insist she’s not afraid of him?
So far they’re following the pattern, but if you look closely, you’ll see where they break free of it: Penryn doesn’t tamp her fear down. She tries to.
Penryn is genuinely afraid of Raffe, and recognizes the power disparity between them–and that fear constantly and consistently affects how she interacts with him. Early on in their acquaintanceship, this fear colors every exchange between them, verbal and nonverbal. And it is wonderful.
Then, as Penryn grows to understand him better–and, yes, as she begins to feel a connection to him that she knows she shouldn’t–her fear of him begins to fade at a realistic pace (italics to emphasize the significance).
Their interactions are also humorous, adding some appreciated levity to what could have otherwise been a pretty dark story. Here, after Penryn had to leave Paige’s wheelchair in a forest, Raffe tries to make her feel better by getting her to make fun of him. When she protests against his determination that she’s moping, he replies:
I suppose I could show you the whole conversation because it’s amazing and I love it, but I’d rather you just go read the book yourself.
Penryn’s Other Struggle
Yes, she struggles with quite a lot in this book. (Hurray!)
As they begin their journey, Penryn comes to a realization:
But Penryn and Raffe grow closer, and as they do, Penryn has something new to worry about–especially when they fall into the hands of Obi, leader of the human resistance in their area:
She has ample of opportunity to wonder about where her loyalty lies, let me tell you.
Other things that are awesome
As is typical for debut novels, Angelfall has its rough edges.
The writing style could occasionally use some work
The writing style is perfectly acceptable (neither bad nor amazing), but it does make the occasional dip into wince-inducing territory. The book’s very first paragraph, for example:
Brilliant sunsets do, indeed, tend to be sunset-colored. Because, you know, sunset.
But again, this is a debut, and you can expect some amount of uneven style from a debut. Style improves with practice!
The chapter breaks are sometimes frustrating
I experienced genuine annoyance by the placement of the chapter break between chapters one and two. Here’s the end of chapter one:
Chapter breaks serve three general functions: to signal the end of a scene/shift to a new point of view, to provide a natural break where the action shifts gears, and to generate suspense.
When a chapter ends with intense fear of what’s on the other side of the door, and a dramatic opening of that door, what do you as the reader assume? That the chapter break is the author’s way of ratcheting up the tension because something major is about to happen, of course. This suspense is what compels you to stay up hours after your bedtime; you must know what’s going to happen next.
Here’s the beginning of chapter two:
Nothing happens. There’s nothing on the other side of the door except empty street. Empty street for pages.
This chapter break builds a fantastic amount of suspense and then just shrugs it off. This can frustrate, disappoint, and even betray a reader’s trust–which is the opposite of what you want to do, especially so early in a novel.
The differently-abled character is a plot device
Penryn’s little sister, Paige, is the impetus for the entire plot: she’s kidnapped by angels, and Penryn risks everything to save her. Paige is also wheelchair-bound.
Paige is present just long enough for the reader to be assured that she’s sweet and helpless, and her abduction by angels sets off the plot of the story. Do I have a problem with sweet, helpless little sisters? Of course not. Do I have a problem with her abduction taking place so quickly? Of course not.
What bothers me is that she is a plot device, not a person. All we know about her personality is that she smiles a lot, and that she has strong feelings against eating meat. The only action we see her perform is trying to split an energy bar equally between herself, her sister, and her mother. This sketches a vague idea of a sweet, sensitive girl, but it’s a very one-dimensional sketch. She’s a shadow of a person, not a full one.
If she had a few lines of dialogue and a performed few more actions (even tiny ones!) we would have a much better grasp on who she is beyond Sweet Little Sister. However, in the short time we spend with Paige, she says exactly one thing: Penryn’s name, as she’s being abducted.
Her utter silence begins in the story’s fifth paragraph:
How does Penryn know Paige likes her to push the wheelchair? Because Penryn just knows, not because Paige has ever told her so, or asks her to in that moment. The distinction there is marked enough that I immediately wondered if Paige was unable to speak, an idea that was reinforced by Paige’s continual silence–at least up until the moment she screamed Penryn’s name.
If Paige’s silence is important to her character (perhaps a result of the mysterious trauma that had confined her to a wheelchair?), I would like to know that. But we’re told nothing, and I can only speculate as to why Paige has no voice. My speculations aren’t good.
Voicelessness is generally associated with weakness and powerlessness, and Paige is the essence of powerlessness. She depends on her sister for survival, as you would expect from any sweet-tempered seven-year-old thrown into a post-apocalyptic world. This dependence on Penryn is made even more crucial by her inability to use her legs–and then exaggerated even further by her preference to be pushed by her sister rather than be in control of her own movement.
In short, Paige is presented as The Totally Helpless Girl Who Needs Saving rather than a person, and this is beyond disappointing.
Other (Minor) Issues
I think it’s interesting that so many people read Penryn and Paige as white. I avoid reading reviews until after I’ve finished a book, and when I started poking through reviews of Angelfall earlier today, that’s the first thing I noticed. Curious, I plugged a few search terms into Tumblr to see what pictures came up, and the vast majority of the fan-chosen pictures for Penryn featured white (more specifically, blonde-haired and blue-eyed) models and actresses. A few women of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent popped up, but not many. So I dug further, and found that author herself had deliberately described Penryn in a manner that would allow readers to view her however they liked.
Thinking back, I only remember her dark hair and black eyes mentioned once, and a single reference is easy to overlook, forget, or deliberately ignore. I’m all for letting readers envision characters as they will, but I’ll admit I hope that if this book does get made into a movie, the actress chosen to portray Penryn is a woman of color.
Despite, you know, dealing with angels descending from heaven to (apparently) wipe humanity off the face of the earth, there’s almost no religion in the novel. All of the major characters–including Raffe!–are atheist or agnostic. There is no preaching, no Christian message. I wish there had been a Christian character so I could see their reaction to the whole angels-wiping-out-humanity thing, but that’s okay.
As well as a general lack of religion, this book is fairly quiet on the “deeper message about humanity or whatever” front. This is, I assume, largely because Penryn doesn’t experience a completed character arc; she does change a little over the course of the novel, but not enough. I’m assuming that her arc will continue across the next couple of books, so perhaps a clearer message will show itself. But to be clear, the lack of a completed arc hasn’t negatively affected my reception of this book. It’s just, you know, a thing to note, in case you yourself prefer heroines undergo a more solid character arc.
Angelfall is definitely a four-star book, and if I enjoy the sequel this much, they might be added to my permanent collection. (My bookshelf space is precious, you know, and I can’t afford to add books that aren’t going to be reread a hundred times. I’ve already usurped Andrew’s shelves, and we’ve run out of walls to put new shelves against. It’s a terrible problem to have.)