Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,

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maybe I'm just especially picky about my satanic literature...

Finished To Reign in Hell. The premise was really interesting, but I'm not so sure about the execution... I'm afraid Brust has rather reminded me why I don't generally read sci-fi or fantasy novels. Like so many of them, this one came off more like a really excellent fanfic than like a professional work, I thought. I found it particularly jarring in this case because of how blatantly similar Brust's style is to Zelazny's, yet without being anywhere near as polished or natural as Zelazny is. But besides that, his writing just felt very rushed to me, a bit haphazard, a bit heavyhanded... I mean, I realize it's hard to deal with messiahs and gods and damnation without being heavyhanded, and Brust sure as hell could easily have done much, much worse. But --

Well, enough skirting around spoilers. On to the review.

The main problem I have with the book is how underdeveloped it feels. It reminded me strongly of Zelazny's Lord of Light, except that with Zelazny (and with others, like Tolkien, to an even greater extent), you always get the sense that there's a ton of stuff he's not telling you; he seems to have the whole universe worked out in his head, and it's almost vexing how little of it he gives you in the text. With Brust, I get just the opposite sense; it feels like he's telling you everything he knows, and the universe ends exactly where the words end. Whenever he describes something, he sounds like an author describing something, someplace, someone, that he's invented; he doesn't sound like he's telling you about someone he knows, somewhere he's been.

It doesn't help that every time he introduces a character, he has to give an inventory of his/her physical characteristics and attire. It also doesn't help that he writes almost exclusively in dialogue exchanges. I really think this book would have made a fantastic graphic novel, because Brust could have had all the dialogue he wanted, and the few necessary bits of exposition could easily have been worked in over full-page panels here and there. The universe would have looked fully developed, and there'd have been no need for redundant physical description. It would have worked really well. Maybe better than Sandman, even.

But it's not a graphic novel, so back to the point.

Some of his characterization choices were a little strange. The weirdest one, really, was Satan himself, who instead of being any kind of proper adversary (as his name indicates) was, rather, too well-meaning and honest for his own good, and wanted to do the best for everyone at the same time, which was impossible. His only crime was his inability to choose between two evils. Which makes for a fine character, and I did like him -- but he certainly wasn't very satanic!

I just can never figure out what the point is of all these apology-for-the-devil stories that try to make Satan out as the tragic hero, and inevitably wind up having to cast someone else as the villain. If you're going to have a bad guy anyway, why shouldn't that be the guy we call Satan? The whole point of Satan is that he is the bad guy, the representative and responsible party for all things evil -- so why go to the trouble of absolving him of all crime, only to blame someone else for it? I mean, what's the moral of your story? That we humans have been giving a bad rap to the wrong bloke? He's not real! You don't need to defend the reputation of a dude who is not real!

There might be something to it if there were no villain, and the point was to suggest that there is no true evil, only conflicting opinions about what's right -- that "evil" springs not from our own will, but from external elements which force unhappy choices on us: from the chaos in which we're forced to exist. That would be something. But everyone winds up inventing a villain anyway! And in Brust's book, the "good guys" are almost all far more evil, or at best far more selfish, than Satan's supporters. The only good good guys are Michael and Yaweh, both of whom are so nice that they're positively dim, and easy to trample over.

Brust's choice to make Lucifer and Satan separate people was another odd thing. I know some mythologies do recognize them as different entities, but since Lucifer didn't act like any of the mythological versions of Lucifer, and Satan didn't act like any of the mythological versions of Satan, the names were just sort of arbitrary. Especially since Lucifer had the only Latin name in the entire cast.

Then there was Asmodai. I like to think I know Asmodai -- or Asmoday, or Asmodeus, or Ashmodai, etc. etc. -- pretty well, but no incarnation of him that I've ever seen resembles Brust's in the least. Which is especially weird because there are other demons he could have chosen who do resemble the character he wrote. So this seemed like another rather arbitrary name.

And if I recall, Abdiel means something like "faithful to the lord" or "serves god" or something. In Paradise Lost, Abdiel is definitely one of the good guys. I'm not sure if Brust picked that name for irony or what. (I found this really weird, because I have an OC of my own named Abdiel, whose name I did choose for irony, and who by an outrageous coincidence resembles Brust's character very closely. I think I'm going to be changing my OC's name, in fact, because the coincidence is just too damn strange.)

There's also Lilith, who is rather Mary-Sueish, seeing as she's the first woman ever, the most beautiful woman ever (EVER), the former girlfriend of practically every male cast member, and also the fastest runner in all of Heaven, for some reason. :P

However, there were things that I liked about the characters, too. Mephistopheles was a perfect Mephistopheles, and probably my favorite of all the angels/demons. I liked Satan and I liked Yaweh (even though he was kind of a dolt), and I even kind of liked Michael (even though he was really a dolt). And Lucifer was okay, and Harut was okay. Zephkiel was neat. They just all needed more development.

Heck, the whole story just needed more development. It all just felt so rushed and superficial. There were places where the style worked really well. When he introduced the idea of the chaos from which all things spring into being, and into which all things recede into unbeing again, and the way the Firstborn took shape amid the chaos, preserved by the property of their own innate will to survive -- that was really well done. But then in other places he lingers on the most trivial details, which would be fine in a longer book with longer chapters, but when you're writing in clipped little half-page blocks of dialogue and short bursts of dramatic exposition, it's damn awkward for your characters to have to introduce themselves and chat about the weather a bit before they get down to business, every time. At one point, Brust spent a whole bloody paragraph describing the precise manner in which each one of half a dozen characters chose to lower himself into a sitting position. In a book this short, you'd think we could skip over stuff like that!

And then... there are the anachronisms.

Now, look, I'm the first person to appreciate just how hard it is to write about Heaven without getting seriously anachronistic, since after all I'm writing a Fall-of-Satan novel myself, after a fashion. But Brust doesn't even seem to be trying.

First of all, he's got wordplays that only make sense in English. He makes puns. He mocks his own characters' poetry for awkward English rhymes. At one point, Mephistopheles tricks Gabriel into revealing whether or not he's traveling alone; he does this by asking Gabriel about his travels using the ambiguous English "you," which can be interpreted as either plural or singular. But only in English!

And then for some reason Beelzebub speaks in Elizabethan English, and the other characters make fun of him by puttingeth eths at the endeth of their wordseth, which makes no sense. Why is there this one angel who speaks a different (older???) dialect than the rest of them -- in spite of not even being one of the older angels? And how the devil would you translate this book? In Russian you'd have, what, Beelzebub speaking in Old Church Slavonic or something? I do not even know!

And Mephistopheles makes fun of Ariel by saying he has "the soul of a poet." What does that even mean, in the context of this story? Do the same stereotypes about poets exist in pre-Genesis Heaven that exist in modern-day America? Really?

And then the angels start calling Yaweh the "King of Heaven," and Yaweh tells them he doesn't want to be king, and says Heaven has never needed a king before. If this is true, why does the word "king" even exist? If there has never been a king in all of time, where did they even get the word from, and how is it that they all understand what it means?

Now, okay, to be fair, Brust did all right with some of this stuff. His explanations about the agricultural system in Heaven were pretty good, and all the vague stuff about illiaster and the native powers of different angels, and how they were created -- that was good. Mephistopheles taking up the fashion of wearing whiskers? Awesome. I will even go so far as to buy into it that angels have, for some reason, elected to create bodies for themselves which can process some food/drink, but have to expel the rest as feces/urine (although I can't see why they wouldn't choose to create the perfect food, which can be completely absorbed and expended as energy, instead...). BUT.

Why are there days and nights? Who thought it would be a great idea if it were dark half of the time? And how does it get dark? There's no sun. Why do angels sleep? And okay, fine, I accept that angels defecate in Brust's world, but why would "kiss my ass" be an obscenity? Why would angels think there was anything vulgar or obscene about that part of their anatomy? Is there bacteria in Heaven? Disease? Stench? Why?

And I won't even bother about the impossible idea that somehow a damaged angel, who is forced to assume a lesser form, should manage to instantaneously turn itself into something as complex and well-engineered as an owl or a Golden Retriever...

Ahem. So yes. Anachronisms. They make me headdesk.

Oh, and another thing that should have made me headdesk, but instead just made me burst out laughing, was FRANKENJESUS. XDDDD Seriously. Yaweh combines spare bits of life-force from his entire host of angels in order to create a SUPERANGEL, whom he names Yeshua, and who is described as a big hulking muscular gentle giant. I just cannot help picturing the guy as a Frankenstein's Monster, partly because he's the first angel in Heaven who was ever created by an act of conscious will (and out of spare parts, as it were), and partly because, having been created mere moments previous, he shouldn't be able to do anything but grunt and flail for a while (though of course that's not how it goes, in Brust or in Shelley).

Really, though. Frankenjesus = hilarious.

But as I was saying. There are a number of things I did like about the book. The overall plot was very interesting and original, and Brust did have some nice lines scattered here and there. The two angels who kept switching sides, and finally realizing that they weren't fighting for anything anymore, were a nice touch. "We're not on our side anymore." Yaweh's realization that he has no choice but to become a tyrant, and that he simply must accept that and learn to live with it, was also nicely done, and probably my favorite part of the book. I don't know if the good lines were sufficient in number to balance out the bad puns -- but they were there, anyway.

I was a bit annoyed that the whole plot seemed to hinge on nobody bothering to finish their sentences. I mean, miscommunication is one thing, but in this case, it was just a whole lot of ridiculously laconic people not bothering to say anything. They'd get interrupted halfway into delivering some very important piece of information, and immediately give up, and never make any attempt to repeate themselves.

And I don't even know what was going on with the Orders of the Angels. There was absolutely no reason to bring them up at all, much less to give them their proper names, except as a way for Brust to show off his having studied up on angels before writing his book. There was no reason to show us every single time Yaweh decided to name a new Order, and the fact that Brust came up with half-assed explanations for the names of some of the Orders, but not all of them, only made the pointlessness of the topic all the more obvious. Hell, his own characters kept commenting on how pointless the topic was! They kept having to explain it to each other, like, "Oh, this is Yaweh's new battalion of angels. He's calling them Dominions or something, for some reason." YES, for the reason that Brust apparently felt the Orders of Angels were something he simply must include in his book, however irrelevant they might be!


Anyway. The last few chapters were decent, actually, since fast-paced stuff was actually happening at that point, and Brust's rushed pace made sense there. The conclusion wasn't terribly climactic, but then, how could it be? We all know roughly how the Fall is going to go, and as soon as we've got a feel for Brust's universe we can pretty well guess how Brust is going to rewrite the Fall to fit. It was a novel take on the subject matter, and I did like it. I didn't find the epilogue very convincing; it seemed like both Yaweh and Satan should have been smart enough to work out some kind of truce at that point, since they both understood the other's dilemma by then. But okay, I guess not.


This turned out a bit rantier than I intended. I didn't actually hate the book or anything -- I'm just disappointed because it had so much potential, and I feel like Brust could have done a lot better with such rich material. I'd be willing to try another of his books sometime, though. This one was certainly a quick read, in any case.
Tags: books, religion, reviews, roger zelazny, satan, stephen brust

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