The accomplishments here are nothing short of spectacular. Imagine writing a book populated with some of the most well known characters in Western history: Yahweh, Jesus, Satan, Lucifer (yes, they are separate), and the archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. They all need unique personalities. If they’re not, if they’re retreads of biblical, Dante, Milton, or others, then the book fails.
Then imagine creating a reason for God to create the Cherubs, Seraph, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, etc. Give all of them a purpose. Imagine creating Heaven, giving essence to creation itself — a Big Bang, in effect. Imagine giving reason for the Fall. Not just the reason given in The Revelation, but a rewriting, of sorts, and one that absolutely has to make sense.
This should seem impossible. Only the greatest writers in history have succeeded when touching this material. I’m not going to suggest that Steven Brust is one of the greatest writers in history, but I will emphatically state that he was unbelievably successful. And he did his homework. He dug deep into Christian mythology (I’m saying mythology because many characters come from Dante, Milton, or others, and were never seen in the Bible), and must have spent hours upon hours plotting this novel.
It helps if you do your homework too. Luckily, I own a book called THE DICTIONARY OF ANGELS. You probably don’t, so I’ll help out a bit. Regarding having distinct Satan and Lucifer characters: there is no biblical evidence that supports the two share identities. I won’t go into the various proofs but if you have doubts, Wikipedia does a fine job explaining the difference between the two. Brust also does a terrific job with the character of Jesus and the relationship between father and son. You can read about the the complex theory behind Brust’s work at this Wikipedia page.
It helps to have information about some of the angels mentioned in the Bible and in non-biblical sources:
(Disclaimer: I am not Christian, and do not believe in either angels or demons. This list is composed to help those who don’t have access to other materials reference some angels and demons from the book.)
Bath Kol: Never identified as a character, only in passing reference to a supposed relationship with either Kyriel or Sith. “An angel, often spoken of as female, whose name means “heavenly voice.” The angel is said among the Syrians to have the voice heard by Cain asking “Where is thy brother, Abel?” after Cain murdered his brother. Bat Qol is also said to have visited the famous second-century A.D. rabbi Simion ben Yohai (the supposed of the Jewish mystical work the Zohar) while he was imprisoned. In the sense of Bat-Kol, the angel can represent the divine voice that announces the will of God.”
Kyriel: One of the 28 angels governing the 28 mansions of the moon.
Sith: Angel of an hour (6 to 7 o’clock); a regent ruling a planet.
Leviathan: In the book, the Regent of the West. In the Enoch parables, Leviathan is the primitive female sea-dragon and monster of evil, associated with Behemoth (who is not referenced in this book).
Ariel: The name has many implications, but Shakespeare saw Ariel as a sprite, and to Milton Ariel is a rebel angel, overcome by the seraph Abdiel in the first day of fighting in heaven.
Abdiel: According to Milton, the angel who overcomes Ariel in the first day of fighting in heaven. Brust takes Abdiel and runs with him.
Mephistopheles: Derived from the Hebrew “mephiz”, meaning destroyer, and “tophel”, meaning liar. One of the fallen archangels, and one of the 7 great princes of Hell.
Michael: One could write for hours. For brevity’s sake: he ranks as the greatest of angels, whether in Jewish, Christian, or Islamic writings, secular or religious. He is chief of the order of virtues, chief of archangels, prince of the presence, angel of repentance, righteousness, mercy and sanctification, and conqueror of Satan. Archangel.
Belial: A great fallen angel. From Milton, “Belial came last; than whom a Spirit more lewd/Fell not from Heav’n, or more gross to love/Vice itself.”
Asmodai: In Milton, spelled Asmadai. One of the 2 potent thrones. Uriel and Raphael are credited with vanquishing Asmadai. In the book, Asmodai is a builder of sorts, a blacksmith. Asmodeus, a name closely related to Asmodai, is credited with being the inventor of carousels, music, dancing, drama. There may be no connection.
Uriel: Like Michael, one could write for hours. He is one of the leading angels in noncanonical lore, and ranked variously as a seraph, cherub, regent of the sun, flame of God, angel of the presence (remember that Michael is prince of the presence), presides over Hades, etc. Archangel. A patron angel of literature and music.
Raphael: The name seems to mean “God has healed”. One of the princes of the presence and regent of the sun. This archangel is extremely healing to all living beings. Raphael grants joy, healing, love, miracles and grace. Archangel.
This certainly isn’t an all-encompassing list, but it should be enough to get you started. You don’t need to know what Milton, the Bible, or Dante said about any of these entities to fully enjoy the novel, but Brust has some good tongue-in-cheek fun that you would miss out on otherwise.
FanLit thanks Todd Burger for this guest review. Todd is a businessman from Chicago. He fell in love with fantasy after watching The Wizard of Oz in second grade. The next day, he scurried to the library but found the book already checked out. However, the librarian lifted his spirits by showing him thirteen more Oz books by L. Frank Baum. In third grade, his mother imposed a ban on “those Oz books,” which had become an obsession. Forced to diversify, he tried to check out Huckleberry Finn, but his teacher opposed the idea. When he presented her with a Dr. Seuss book for approval, he quickly found himself cleaning erasers for being “full of too much sass.” Once, he charmed a substitute teacher into approving Huck Finn, and when his duplicity was discovered, he came to know eraser dust intimately. Soon, Todd started reading everything he could find.