Among angels, both good & bad

second take

Among angels, both good & bad

Now that Inferno has proved to be an even bigger disappointment than The Lost Symbol, what hope is there for a really juicy conspiracy thriller in the offing? Very little, since Dan Brown, our bestselling old hand at this, has himself failed to satisfy in this department.

And so it is with some relief that I turn to something that uses religious mythology, symbols and secrets to fashion a more highbrow thriller: the Angelology series by Danielle Trussoni. I returned to Angelology (after Inferno bombed) and its recent sequel, Angelopolis, which takes us deeper into that strange and enticing world of angels (but no demons — the bad angels are the demons here) we first encountered in Trussoni’s first bestselling installment.

Reading Angelopolis and rereading Angelology back-to-back inside of just a week, my head is now filled with its sensual secrets and its compelling images. It takes you deep into an alternative world of angels who walk the earth and the world of angelologists: scholars who have studied these beings for centuries. Young people are going to forsake vampires and werewolves for angels; angels will be the new fantasy; the new seduction.
Critics have praised both books for being such textured thrillers. Though referenced with Christian theology, it is really not Christian or even theist. And it’s not sentimental and new-agey either. It’s a convincing, heavily researched work of speculative, hallucinatory fiction. It immerses you in this otherworld that eerily parallels our own world, and is yet unfamiliar and spellbinding.

In a recent interview, Trussoni remarked about her sequel, “I felt very strongly that Angelopolis needed to be both a continuation and a story that a reader could pick up and simply enjoy without having read Angelology. The real challenge for me was to reintroduce the cast of characters in just the right way. For those readers of Angelology, the characters had changed and so I needed to give some background about why this had happened. For readers coming to Angelopolis fresh, I wanted to present fully formed characters that were immediately engaging. It wasn’t at all easy. But at the same time, I found that there was a new lightness in Angelopolis that Angelology did not have.”

But it is Angelology, the first book, that I want to dwell on. We are introduced to the Nephilim — half angel, half human — for the first time here, and discover that they resemble us more than some otherworldly creatures! Over the years there has been an industry of books exploring the mythology of angels, but the Angelology series is the first to offer a plausible history for them; a thrilling account of who and what these creatures are. Trussoni’s books reveal for the first time what wings — the body part most characteristic of angels — mean in their cosmology. A mark of their status in the angel world: “A symbol of their blood, their breeding, ... their position in the community. Displaying them properly brought power and prestige.”

I certainly hadn’t imagined that. And yet when you come across this piece of information it rings true, and you say, of course, why did we think they were there only to make them fly? There are more revelations in store in this densely plotted supernatural thriller with characters who are deeper and more compelling than those usually offered in blockbusters. The book’s heroine, Evangeline, is a librarian nun who stumbles into the secret world of angelologists and is plunged into a netherworld that changes her beliefs, her entire life. It’s filled with all those things we love religious conspiracy thrillers for: archival scholars, secret library labyrinths, hidden parchments with codes, forbidden treasures, otherworldly villains, and exotic locations.

The story of the first novel moves back and forth in time, from New York to Paris to Bulgaria (to the Devil’s Throat, a cave in the Rhodopes Mountains with a stunning waterfall, and an underground river that is now a UNESCO heritage site — I can see how largely this is going to figure as a readymade scene in the movie version). It is the Nephilim, an ancient order descended from humans and angles, we learn who have controlled the fate of the world all these centuries in secret; infiltrating our most powerful institutions, they have shaped our history to suit their dark ways. (To reveal how would give away juicy bits of the plot). They are behind history’s many dark acts — war, famine, genocide, even recession (!) — and strive to influence our present day economic, social and political systems with their own nihilistic agenda.

But the Nephilim have ancient foes, a secret band of scholars who have pursued them, identified them, made deals with them, and fought them. The Angelologists. Our intelligent heroine discovers that her own parents were such intrepid scholars. Now she too must join them in the race to prevent the Nephilim from finding a hidden artefact of such great power that in the wrong hands it could change the course of our history. An engagingly familiar plot, but what distinguishes Danielle Trussoni’s finely imagined, entertaining fantasy thriller from the rest in this overworked genre is its sophisticated plotting and the pleasure of its prose.

A New York Times review of the first novel said, “Sensual and intellectual, Angelology is a terrifically clever thriller — more Eco than Brown, without the cloudy sentimentalism of New Age encomiums or Catholic treatises. It makes no apologies for its devices, and none are necessary. How else would it be possible to bring together the angels of the Bible and Apocrypha, the myth of Orpheus, Bulgarian geography, medieval monastics, the Rockefellers, Nazis, nuns and musicology? And how splendid that it has happened.” 

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