Mixing science fiction and fantasy with elements of horror and erotica, as well as the weird, The Glorious Angels is Justina Robson's first non tie-in novel since Down to the Bone—the conclusion of the Quantum Gravity quintet—fully four years ago. I don't mind admitting that I had high hopes it would represent a return to form for the oft award-nominated author, but despite its dizzying ambition and a few glimmers of brilliance, to be blunt, it doesn't. A syrupy slow opening sees to that from the start.
The first few hundred pages of Robson's cross-genre odyssey take place in Glimshard, a magnificent city of crystalline stems and spires at the very tip of which sits the Empress Shamuit Torada, who has in her infinite wisdom waged a war of sorts against the Karoo, a strange and essentially alien race "from so far away they were considered beyond civilisation, as elusive as the two-headed wolf of legend," (p.21) and at least as dangerous, I dare say.
As to why she's set her sights on such a terrible enemy when her people are pitifully unprepared for conflict of any sort beyond the wars of words fought in coffee shops across the capital... well, some among the citizens of Glimshard wonder as we do, and some among them think they've arrived at an answer: in brief, because the Karoo's territory takes in a dig site beneath which several surviving scientists have seen evidence of something special; something which the Empress desires so dearly that she's ready to risk the survival of all her beloved subjects to recover.
The exact nature of this purported prize is an enigma wrapped inside of a riddle—buried, to boot, fathoms below the surface of the world—even to Tralane Huntingore, Professor of Engineering at the Glimshard Academy of Sciences.
Our absent-minded protagonist is a bit of a tinkerer in addition, which is to say one of the few folks able to use the technology left behind by the people who predate the growth of the Golden Empire. Take crystallographs, for example:
They recorded sound into crystal which another crystallograph could play back when attached to the correct speaker apparatus. They did suffer, however, from the fact that although their operators knew how to use and repair them, they did not understand what exactly was going on. Only engineers ever used them, employed for the purpose as Recorders and Relayers, and sometimes they tinkered and attempted to record images or thoughts, but they had no theory as to the exact nature of the workings. They knew what things did. They did not know why. As with most Imperial technology it was a trade secret bound in the blood of the lines. It wasn't just that machines were difficult to use or required special skills; non-bloodline engineers could not and never would be able to understand them. This was also true of other physicomagics, such as alchemy and metallurgy. (p.76)These hints about the big picture behind Robson's novel are powerful in and of themselves, and awfully promising—as are the suggestions of the sexual politics underlying this society. Another of the characters we're introduced to early on—another of a number who have next to nothing to do in advance of The Glorious Angels' too little, too late last act—is the spy Zharazin Mazhd, who is rather taken with Tralane:
If he'd been born female then he would have taken his place among the echelons of the Legacy as one of the invaluable Mediatrices whose wombs were capable of genetically recombining zygotes into necessary, viable or important forms, drawing on their vast Memories and the Morphatic Libraries of the Blood. A lifetime as the highest and most valued being would have been guaranteed, personality no object.
As a male he was strictly limited to recognition and no more—a talent scout or matchmaker at best, a shoddy snooper of personal tragedy at worst. He'd been both, still was, when the money was necessary or the job essential for the furtherance of his career although he scorned the ability. It was effortless, like breathing, no challenge, no skill involved. Spying on the other hand, real spying, real information dealing, that was all about skill and instinct working together, patience, endurance, insight, timing; things worthy of respect. (p.83)Would that Robson invested more heavily in exploring the meaning of this mirroring—not to speak of the found physicomagics that respond to Tralane's touch. But as the author has said herself, The Glorious Angels "isn't meant as a manifesto [...] it's just what came out in the wash," and indeed, these differences are damn near devoid of significance. They only are. Don't waste your time asking why or to what end.
More's the pity that this sense of senselessness also extends to the overall narrative of the novel. What passes for a plot for perhaps half of the whole is the initially inexplicable presence of a single Karoo in the capital. He proves a pivotal player later, but all anyone can do before Robson finally lays her cards on the table is speculate:
The Karoo was a windfall in truth, a strange kind of queen piece handed to [General] Fadurant in a game that had few such things that could be turned in many directions. But he was also a rank outsider, a loner and a thorn in the sides of the training sergeants who themselves must keep to military discipline and ensure it among the men. He was a goat (a wolf was the first image that came to mind but it didn't fit the metaphor any way that Fadurant liked) among what were essentially sheep, and they must not lose sight of that. As if that were not enough he was also a curio or living fossil that the University thought it might prise out of Fadurant's grasp. And this was before Gleaming's social hounds got wind of his presence and sniffed blood for the dancefloor. (pp.27-28)This is The Glorious Angels all over: a book about maneuvering, little interested in movement, which, when it's not completely plotless, is all sorts of chaotic. Sure, the setting is tremendous—this is a milieu of beautiful minutiae—and I enjoyed a couple of the characters—not least Tralane and her teenagers, Minnabar and Isabeau—but even here Robson rejects expectations, by refusing to focus on the folks we've come to care about in favour of an array of other individuals who feel, in the final summation, more like spare parts than people.
There's something to be said for doing things differently; for bucking trends rather than riding them into rack and ruin. The Glorious Angels is refreshing in that respect, so no, it's not a devastating disappointment, but nor is it the return to form of my fantasies.